12 Nov 2008

Album review: Songs from the South (Vol. 2)

Album review: Songs from the South (Vol. 2)

By Noel Mengel, The Courier Mail

 

ABOUT half-way through Volume 2, when one of the most heartbreaking songs of regret you could ever hear ('If I Could Start Today Again') meets a sweetly sighing pop song ('The Oldest Story In The Book'), and then a feel-good rocker ('Won't You Come Around'), and then a 1960s surf-rock instrumental ('Gunnamatta').

 

Then it hits home what we have here. A best-of Volume 2 that's just as rich and profound, and even more wide-ranging, than the first.

 

As a collection, and as a soundtrack to and commentary on Australian life, Volume 1, which featured songs from 1985 to 1997, is indispensable for anyone interested in the country and its popular music.

 

Volume 2, which collects songs from 1998 to now, the period when Paul Kelly went from his early 40s to his early 50s, shows he is a rare gem. That is, a songwriter for whom the well keeps replenishing and who is just as capable of writing a classic today as he was 20 years ago.

 

Sure, 'From St Kilda to Kings Cross' and 'Deeper Water' and 'How to Make Gravy' – to pick just three of the extraordinary songs on Volume 1 – have earned their place as highpoints in Australian songwriting. Songs like these paint pictures as vividly as Tim Winton does with his pen, as surely as John Olsen with a brush.

 

And the really great writers keep writing, the great painters keep painting, and the great songwriters keep going, too. That's what Kelly has continued to do at an age when most popular songwriters struggle to maintain their muse, their relevance and their commercial success.

 

The musical explorations of the past 10 years, from collaboration bands Professor Ratbaggy and The Stardust Five to bluegrass (see Kelly and the Stormwater Boys on the superb 'Gathering Storm') to the A-Z concert project, didn't dilute Kelly's juices but revitalise them.

 

The release of Volume 2 (available separately or in a double pack with Volume 1) underlines the strength of the later phase, whether alone on the acoustic guitar and harmonica, such as the childhood incident recalled in 'They Thought I Was Asleep', to roaring rock songs like 'God Told Me To', a story told from the terrorist's point of view.

 

A song like that couldn't be more serious, and yet it sits near the hilarious new song, 'Shane Warne', which provides Volume 2's partner to the earlier album's 'Bradman'. Among the rhymes to savour: "In Manchester England 1993, he bowled what they called the ball of the century/Mike Gatting looked up struck dumb as a post/Walked from the crease like he'd just seen a ghost."

 

An anecdote: in another life as a sports writer, I was sitting chatting to Australian leg-spin legend Bill O'Reilly high in the press box in the SCG. He watched a young batsman swing bravely across the line without bothering to move his feet. He said with a grin: "You can smell the gum leaves on him."

 

The same can be said of Kelly's music too, the way it sounds, feels, the way it captures not just the stories but the space and the light. This is music written by someone who knows and understands all of Australia, from the baking bitumen streets of Darlinghurst to nights by the campfire deep in the scrub.

 

Yet, human nature being what it is, the listener need never have set foot in this country to understand the art and depth and emotion of our greatest songwriter.

 

And Volume 1? From 'Leaps and Bounds' to 'To Her Door' and 'Winter Coat' and all the rest: who would want to be without it?