The cover of Australian legend Paul Kelly's latest album, ...nothing but a dream, profiles the artist in silhouette overlooking a brilliant sun-bleached waterscape. This idyllic scene and the lush sounds running through it suggest somnambular bliss and summer dreams, but the stories they surround tell a much different story.
The opener, "If I Could Start Today Again," finds Kelly singing in the voice of someone who has burned his last bridge and has no idea how to repent, except to pray for his life to change for the better. To a fingerpicked accompaniment, a study in shattered desperation emerges with the narrator's opaque admission "when the red mist falls around my eyes/ I know not what I do." It's the sound of someone out of touch with his family and world, trapped inside himself. Like many Kelly compositions, it gathers strength with repeated listens. His craftsmanship and careful choice of words, not to mention his elastic, intimate vocals, are all put to work in service to the song. His approach is subtle, and it's possible to dismiss his work on a single spin of the CD; however, by the fourth or fifth listen, the songs assert themselves as durable, ambitious rock 'n' roll, with a surprisingly emotional sucker-punch.
Five beautiful and often bleak tales on, another unnamed protagonist skitters across a twitchy rhythmic bed of electric guitar and ominous bass toward a violent public outburst, promising "They're going to want to analyze me/ Canonize and demonize me/ Buy the rights and serialize me/ Cut me down to size and moralize about me/ I'm just about to break/ I'm just about to break/ I'm just about to break." Of course, his final declaration that "My heart is full of love" could be taken as evidence he's trying to make a connection rather than a killing, but a line is never drawn between intention and action. We're left to wonder at the consequences of his isolation, the same way we might at the insularity that drives the lone voice of "Somewhere in the City" to declare, in the face of unrequited love, "On a night like this I feel like committing a crime."
Kelly's esteemed 1985 album Post won him a small legion of fans in Oz, but it was on the A&M-released albums, Gossip, Under the Sun, and So Much Water, So Close to Home that his critical, if not commercial star began its ascent in the United States. The trio contained a mixture of muscular folk-rock, compelling character-driven narratives and a mythologizing of Australia that has lent his adopted hometown of Melbourne the same kind of rock-chic enjoyed by Asbury Park since Bruce Springsteen started exhausting audiences there in the early 1970s. And it's not mere name-dropping Kelly's songs lend the locales an extra dimension, not the other way around. Strolls along St. Kilda Pier when I was living through the scorching Australian summer of 199899 live larger in my memory because I was humming the closing lines of "From St. Kilda to Kings Cross" as I walked: "I'd give you all of Sydney harbor/ All that land and all that water/ For that one sweet promenade."
From his first significant public exposure, Kelly was drawing comparisons to such heavyweights of the singer/songwriter genre as Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello and Springsteen, but while his pointed lyrics wowed immediately, he has proven to be a late bloomer musically. His last three proper studio albums (also including Deeper Water and Words & Music) dwarf the A&M records for musical inventiveness, richness of tone and texture, and experimental spirit. Kelly has grown into a Costello-esque musical explorer, but with a better hit-to-miss ratio than Mr. McManus. An increasing number of female duet partners, guitar players and co-writers has only expanded his reach. Now Kelly is positioned as an elder statesman of Australian rock 'n' roll, and all the best line up to work with him.
To wit: "Midnight Rain," co-written by Wendy Matthews, is one of the best things Kelly's ever recorded. It's a mood-altering, erotic evocation of a rainy night spent staring out a window looking for the ghost of a failed romance, all tinted by a breathy guest vocal from Billie Godfrey that will set your hair on end it's that good! Spencer Jones adds tasteful echo-laden guitar, the end result being something that wouldn't sound out of place on a Waterboys record. Put this one on repeat, turn the lights down low and listen to the sound of pent-up desire drifting on and on, all through the night.
If nothing else here scales those heights, there are still plenty of other treasures. "I Wasted Time" continues Kelly's flirtations with hard-bitten country music, with a lilting fiddle line and a typically morbid lyric ("I wasted time/ Now time has wasted me"). The orchestrated "Love Is the Law" features Kiwi diva Bic Runga's scene-stealing vocal cameo and a pulsing electric guitar riff reminiscent of The Edge's playing on U2's "Walk On"; it demonstrates Kelly's increasing desire to paint on larger musical canvases. U.S. buyers also get the bonus of four extra songs tacked on the end from his Roll On Summer EP (released in 2000 in Australia). Of particular value here is the nasty Aussie single "Every Fucking City," which demonstrates that album by album, Paul Kelly grows both fiercer and more fun.