01 Oct 2003
By Bleddyn Butcher
Some of us who should know better pronounce "love songs" with a silent "silly" – as if there were a higher kind. Paul Kelly's new collection, Ways and Means, containing nineteen unruly examples of the species (plus two breezy instrumentals), shows the prejudice for what it is.
The album, Paul's ninth collection of new songs since Post in 1985, takes a single subject, Love and its Many Splendours, and finds abundance: a gushing fountainhead of ruthless tunes, limpet riffs and bootstrap philosophy. Just because the path is well-trodden, don't mean the well is dry.
"I want to write songs that don't get used up in the first couple of listens, that keep revealing things. As with every songwriter, I think, my staple song is the love song. Happy love songs are much harder to write than the sad ones. More and more as I've gone on, they're the songs I want to write. To me as a songwriter, that's a challenge: to write happy love songs without being banal, sentimental or smug."
Paul meets the challenge heart-on. His new songs roil and seethe with feeling, wondering at their own abandon and delighting in the ride. The songs exude gratitude. 'Beautiful Feeling' unfolds like a flower, shy stirrings blooming to proud radiance. '48 Angels' begins as awestruck adoration, a counting of blessings, and loses itself in rapture. Elsewhere, loss of self is an explicit aim: in 'Won't You Come Around', the singer anxiously assures his lover: "only you can make this brain shut down". The salve he seeks is clearly sexual – these songs ain't prissy – but he aspires to the Platonic even so. He seeks a soulmate: the line "In my mind, it's always you I'm talking to" echoes the idealising "You're the one I sing my songs to/You're the one I adore" from 'Beautiful Feeling'. Transcendence is his pot of gold.
This vision of oblivious bliss isn't wholly rose-tinted. There's no pretence that the course of true love ever ran smooth. There's no nit-picking, either, but things can get difficult. They sometimes turn downright nasty. 'Can't Help You Now' is brutally dismissive, cold-shouldering a former lover with an exasperation only faintly tinged with regret. 'You Broke A Beautiful Thing', written for Renee Geyer in 1999, is more sympathetic, if no less final: by retaining the female perspective, the singer conveys his understanding that he's the bull in this china shop. 'To Be Good' may be raucous and cavalier, with barrelhouse piano spilling like marbles over a lurching oompah pah floor, but it's also haunted: by the ghost of Hank Williams and a persistent vision of sin.
Only two songs offer explicit narratives. Intriguingly, the characters in both are musicians. The first, 'Oldest Story in the Book', is a masterpiece of economy. Swiftly drawn and archetypal, it tells the story of Tom, Dick, Harry and Richard's "sister June", adding an eternal triangle to Dylan's account of the performer's perpetual dilemma, 'Eternal Circle'. The second, 'Nothing But a Dream', describes an encounter with the muse in terms fully as cryptic as those John Lennon used to describe a more carnal exchange in 'Norwegian Wood'. The singer is enchanted by "a young queen, deep in a forest": he falls under her spell as surely as Alice falls for the rabbit. His surrender, surreally, is his salvation, curing his unnamed sickness and prompting his creative rebirth.
The story in some part – if slyly – explains the album's genesis: sometimes, if you're lucky, the magic rubs off. Set a thief to catch a thief.
Having toured for most of 2002, Paul decided, as he puts it, "to throw the balls up in the air again": to assemble a new set of accompanists. His nephew, Dan Kelly, had been staying with him for some time and was writing songs of his own. Paul heard something in Dan's falsetto – the high country/soul sound which he and drummer Peter Luscombe had long admired – and saw that the time was right. They began writing together. Enlisting Peter and his younger brother Dan (slide guitar and keyboards), proved a shrewd move: both Dans had served stints in Spencer Jones's Guitar Army and soon found ways to complement each other's playing and singing, ways which assisted the Curtis Mayfield/Stones-in-the-70s vibe. The addition of bass player Bill McDonald gave the band its fifth writer/arranger and Paul a further creative boost: "I'm always searching for those collaborations where you find you can write easily with someone, always trying to find new ways to write because writing on my own all the time gets… lonely!"
The combination clicked. The songs flowed freely, from drum feels, "dweeby keyboard lines" and wayward licks. Weekly songwriting sessions quickly grew into to live work. Experiment became event.
The album was recorded without fuss in Melbourne last winter, with producer Tchad Blake cocking an ear for the performance that was ragged but right. He caught plenty. The album is filled with exquisite moments where the emotion cuts every which way. The result is a celebration of sorts, a bittersweet symphony and deep treasure trove. These songs will withstand multiple readings. They're fresh and resilient. Just as the plaintive 'These Are The Days' foresees disappointment in the heat of passion, so the mature observer of 'Young Lovers' is not quite as past-it as he'd like to think: "Never knew such tenderness!" he swoons. Those were the days…
Ain't they sweet!
Ways and Means don't need to be justified. It is.