My mate Asho was so excited about Paul Kelly’s new album ‘Life Is Fine’ that he wanted its release date to be declared a national holiday. Too right I say! The man is a national living treasure, or as Archie Roach put it so succinctly, he is our bard. But even Paul Kelly’s most ardent fans may have been feeling a little perplexed of late.
Paul Kelly’s most recent releases have been anything but conventional. ‘Conversations with Ghosts’ was poetry put to music; ‘Spring and Fall’ was an album dedicated to the idea of a song cycle, ‘The Merri Soul Sessions’ featured guest vocalists singing Paul’s songs; ‘Seven Sonnets and a Song’ were Shakespeare’s sonnets set to music; while ‘Death’s Dateless Night’ (with Charlie Owen) – was an album dedicated to funeral songs. It’s not surprising his record company kept asking “when are you going to do a normal record?”
‘Life is Fine’ is chock full of three minute melodic pop gems, strident little rockers and songs of wistful reflection on love and loss. It’s humorous, hummable, poignant and provocative. It’s vintage Paul Kelly.
Already ‘Life Is Fine’ has drawn comparisons to his classic albums from the 80s like ‘Gossip’ and ‘Under The Sun’. Fair enough, but it would be a mistake to assume that this album is some kind of retro throwback to days gone by. The songs on ‘Life Is Fine’ bear the mark of a man whose youthful spirit and wonder have been supplanted by an older soul looking back on what he has lost in songs like the sublime ‘Petrichor’ (with stunning slide guitar from Lucky Oceans) and the album opener ‘Rising Moon’.
Yet even in the album’s most melancholy moments it always finds an uplifting spirit. From Cameron Bruce’s first piano chords on ‘Rising Moon’ with its solemn backing chorus building to the full thrust of the band as Kelly shouts out.
Regret and yearning have always been the stock tools of Paul Kelly’s trade, but even as he enters his seventh decade he still finds so much optimism and zest for life. In ‘Firewood and Candles’ he’s cooking up a storm in the kitchen, but that’s just an entrée for the main course as he questions: “is that the gods come to Earth, or a mule kicking in our stall?”
Even when he’s amusedly exploring the delicate affliction that is man flu with Vika Bull superbly channeling Bessie Smith, Paul Kelly still can’t leave sex out of the picture: “He’s off his wine and bread, he even said no to head!”
‘Letter in the Rain’ is pure Paul Kelly. An evocative tale embracing nature and religious imagery with a gentle reflection on the fragility of lost love over the sweetest melody. While ‘I Smell Trouble’ is all atmospheric menace.
The title track is based on a poem written by Langston Hughes but as always Paul manages to make those words sound like his own. And as Paul Kelly hits the upper registers of his range in delivering the last lines his heart is singing. And through all of life’s ups and downs we go on. Just be thankful Paul Kelly is on that journey with us.