Believe it or not, we haven’t heard a new Paul Kelly song in five years. He’s been touring. He published his “mongrel memoirs” How To Make Gravy. And he released a mammoth live chronicle of his back catalogue in alphabetical order. But no new songs, and his stories have definitely been missed.
Kelly writes about us, about Australia, using detail and character to rouse our senses and speak to the universality of what may otherwise be mundane. His songs lift the veil on the wonder of the world around us without destroying the mystery of it. It’s a true gift. So now we have his latest record, Spring and Fall, a concept album about the birth, death and resurrection of one relationship, told from multiple perspectives. Taking into account his absence from songwriting, and factoring in the break-up of his own long-term relationship last year, you’d better be ready for some home truths.
The album is a song cycle, and its structure defies today’s pick-and-choose or shuffle-and-forget mentality. Each track borrows both lyrical and musical elements from its neighbours, usually contrasting them with the sentiment of the previous track, so that listening to the album from start to finish is infinitely more rewarding than taking any single element out of context. Spring and Fall is the perfect title, referring not only to the changing of the seasons, but also to the motions, the ups and downs, the push and pull of subtle differences in relationships. It’s a quiet, thoughtful and beautiful work, never designed to jar, only to stir, and there are so many of those poignant, definitively understated Paul Kelly moments, where a light turn of phrase can deliver an emotional gut punch.
It’s also as personal and stripped-back as he’s come across in a long time. Deliberately keeping musical flourishes to a minimum, most songs are anchored with just acoustic guitar, double bass and the occasional brushed drums. It’s a deliberately sparse Americana sound, but it’s never dull, and unlike his bluegrass albums with Uncle Bill, the rawness here is a statement, rather than a distraction or experiment, and it undoubtedly gives power and weight to his story.
Opener New Found Year is as sweet and innocent in sound, with its lightly fingerpicked acoustic and glockenspiel, as it is a sensual prelude to a grand romance, a man asking his lover (‘My new found land/My America’) to ‘Slip your shoes off / Let me help your dress down to the floor’. The next track, When a Woman Loves a Man, uses pastoral imagery and a more folksy, strummed sound to convey a more emotional perspective on the same point in the relationship – ‘Her light comes shining / Inside him little tender blooms expand’. These contrasts develop with each track, becoming more apparent as the album (and the relationship) progresses. Not only is it an engaging narrative device, it keeps things musically interesting, using the tension between the tracks to drive changes in sound.
While the first few tracks are intimate, touches of the external creep in on Someone New, combining strings with the rootsy musical foundation to add a hint of drama, as the lyrics start to explore the natural urge to stray from the relationship. None of Your Business Now, a standout, starts with Kelly’s solo voice imploring his lover to ‘Send me no more letters’, and soon after he unleashes a series of furtive gasps, like he’s at pains to even contemplate what he’s singing – ‘You’re none of my business now’.
The songs themselves are bare and open, simple and defined, yet every element is in service of the whole. A lot of craft has been poured into the album, and picking it apart would only strip it of its magic. There’s nothing approaching a radio-friendly single. Little Aches and Pains, the album closer, is as close as we get to the glib honesty of his Dumb Things or How to Make Gravy, but as a complete work Spring and Fall is remarkable, and in total the best story he’s ever told.