New album "Ways And Means"(Cooking Vinyl)
Irish Release Friday 13th February 2003
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, Kelly'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."
Kelly 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, Kelly 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. Kelly 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
Kelly 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.