10 Oct 2017

Life Is Fine by Paul Kelly

From The Sampler, 7:30 pm on 10 October 2017

Nick Bollinger assesses a new set from iconic Australian songwriter Paul Kelly.

Paul Kelly, 2017

Paul Kelly, 2017 Photo: supplied

There’s irony in the way Paul Kelly employs the phrase 'life is fine', the title of his new album. The song of that name begins with the singer preparing to drown himself, stopping only because the water is too cold.

Life Is Fine

Life Is Fine Photo: supplied

The notion of ‘fine’ as representing something delicate or thin – a fine line, rather than an exquisite beauty – might apply to any of these songs. And yet there is equally something joyful, a sustained celebration of wonder, about this latest collection from Kelly. Not everything is perfect, these songs seem to say, yet that only heightens one’s appreciation for those moments when things go right.

With a piano figure cribbed from Thelonious Monk – but sounding as innocent as a beginner’s keyboard exercise – ‘Finally Something Good’ is typical of the songs here, in which the singer surrenders to sunniness, almost in spite of himself.

Songs like these seem, on the outside, rudimentary; simple forms, melodies so familiar, so worn-in, they might have always existed. But it’s these plain backdrops that allow the small details of Kelly’s writing to stand out. It could be as little as a single word, like the one that gives the song ‘Petrichor’ its title. The word was coined in the 60s by a couple of Aussie scientists, for the smell released by the earth before rainfall. And Kelly clearly delights in working it into a song. But it’s also the sort of sensory experience Kelly would write about. And there’s plenty more of that here.

It’s one of the brilliant things about Paul Kelly that his songs manage to be so distinctive, while adhering so closely to existing forms. At times he’s quite blatant about his borrowings, as in the song he calls ‘Leah: The Sequel’. As the title implies, it picks up precisely where Roy Orbison’s early-60s melodrama leaves off, with the pearl diver drowning as he dreams of his lover. Only in Kelly’s version the diver makes it back alive, though as usual it’s a narrow escape. The song may just have been an exercise, but he carries it off – along with Orbison’s original operatic chorus.

In recent years Kelly has engaged in various experiments, as though trying to shake something new out of himself. He’s set Shakespeare to music, collaborated with classical composers, recorded soul covers. But with this collection there’s a sense that he’s gone back to doing what he’s best known for: his own vernacular songwriting. Even the backings here, from his current rootsy band, recall the rootsy, guitar-led sound of classic Kelly albums from the 80s, like Gossip or Under The Sun.

And yet there are signs that he’s still pushing himself too. On some of these tracks he plays piano – an instrument he’s apparently been taking lessons in – and it brings a new, almost jazzy impressionism to a strong, ominous track like ‘I Smell Trouble’.

Another departure for Kelly here is giving up some of his vocals to other singers. Vika and Linda Bull have collaborated with him often before, but this time each of them takes the lead for a song. And Vika’s vocal on the hilarious ‘My Man’s Got A Cold’ is a highlight.

Bull almost upstages Kelly on his own album, but the ode to man-flu adds levity and helps to make this one of the most fun sets of Kelly songs in a long time. It will be interesting to hear how these new ones sit alongside the Kelly classics when Paul Kelly plays in Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland late November and early December.

Life Is Fine is available on EMI