Not drowning but waving. The cover of Aussie singer-songwriter Paul Kelly’s new album indicates that he’s back in safer waters with a revisit his 1990s pop repertoire. These are the waters that vividly recall his surging pop-rock fortunes of the Nineties.
Literally, that’s true. With longtime backing vocalist Linda Bull taking own his own song Don’t Explain(from Live, 1992) with a full band behind her to add more ‘oomph’ to her powerful delivery. Not that she needed it. And just to show there’s no favouritism Vika Bull, Linda’s vocal partner in rhyme gets to complain her ears out with a thumping rendition of My Man’s Got a Cold, the eternal classic whinge in many a classic Aussie household concept. But then Kelly’s always been a keen observer of the domestic, ready to sweat the small stuff.
Kelly’s band on this record is a bit of a blast from the recent past, as it includes many of the crew who made 2014’s Merri Soul Sessions. Alongside the brilliant Vika and Linda are Ashley Naylor (guitar); Bill McDonald (bass); Cameron Bruce (keyboards); and Peter Luscombe on drums. It’s a group of friends and familiars. And they go way back. That helps.
Relatable and reliable, sure, but sometimes a little restless. Kelly has taken some odd detours lately. His last album was a collection of songs he’d been asked to perform at funerals and before that a collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets set to music.
Life Is Fine is a shameless attempt to time travel back and recapture the energy and vibe records such as Post. But this time Kelly’s collection is without a concept, rhyme or reason, nothing to confine him. It’s just a Paul Kelly album without choirs, Shakespeare or any other themes – except, maybe ‘water’.
He’s returned to the piano, even learning to play better, which seems to have invigorated him as a songwriter, takes everything back to basics. So ‘simplicity’ is at the core of the songs Finally Something Good, My Man’s Got a Cold and I Smell Trouble. The latter, especially, is surely one of Kelly’s best songs in ages and reminds me just a little of his classic Sweet Guy (1989).
If you remember the wonderfully mundane romance of his tune Winter Coat (1991), then you’ll appreciate the first single Firewood and Candles which has a similar feel. Maybe it’s his voice, maybe it’s the arrangement or perhaps the simple and clear lyrics. Whatever the case, it feels genuine and down to earth – as if you might know the people in this scenario. It totally feels like one of his 80’s numbers.
Wanting this to be an upbeat record Kelly worked with Steve Schram (The Cat Empire), who engineered and co-produced. He likes to work really fast and get the performance of the band live in the studio, vocals and all at the same time. You can hear this immediacy in the sound of the record. It’s vibrant and lively.
Kelly’s enduring songwriting mojo is his continual drive to break old habits, find new ways to extend his creative powers. But also, to link old songs with new. Which is probably where the water theme comes from.
Early songs featured biblical references and fishing in streams, metaphors for atonement. The album’s title track has the lines “If that water hadn’t been so cold I might have sunk and died”. Morbid but positive? Actually, it’s not Kelly’s line but that of American poet Langston Hughes, who died in 1967. Still, Kelly can’t help appropriating it and mixing it with a Stevie Smith reference by “Not drowning, waving” on the cover of his album. You get the feeling that the ‘fine’ reference is about details, like the ripples on a calm lake – individually, nothing but collectively the .sum of all nervous, unpredictable energies. He actually says that:
Fans of Kelly can be certain – Life Is Fine is one of his strongest and most evocative albums for years, Another reason to buy vinyl – so you can stack this treasure proudly next any of his earlier classic albums.