Paul Kelly’s reputation doesn’t rest in a single moment, and it certainly doesn’t rest with a single song. Broken lover, cricket fan, singer-songwriter or simply ‘the gravy man’ — take your pick, take as you can, take him as you will. Everybody has their own Paul Kelly.
For many, the bright sound of his 2017 album Life Is Fine was a rediscovery. Both the record and its accompanying tour were well received. As understated as the music was, it seemed to impress something about this artist’s significance upon the Australian psyche.
People went out and bought it. Life was in the charts, the artist’s first Number #1. 23 albums in, and Kelly had finally done it. He was 62.
Nature follows. Drawing on Life’s momentum, it’s a focused record. Kelly is again at the front and centre. He continues to find his muse in the poetry of others, but also works in some of his own. The arrangements are strong, the emotions pure. Mortality is again on Kelly’s mind, curiosity and nuance are colouring his work.
More directly and to the point, Nature breathes as an album. Kelly is tighter and more concise. The best of this new material reconnects with his folk and hard rocking roots.
Nature is a formidable record, and this is how Kelly has pulled it off.
Paul Kelly’s ‘Nature’: A Track-By-Track Review
‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’
For all of the album’s spark, opener ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’ may be its gentlest glimmer. That’s not to say ‘Death’ doesn’t lack in charm, nor do Kelly’s vocals fail him as he traces the immortal words of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Looking inward it buzzes with the glowing warmth, a welcome return.
‘With The One I Love’
‘With The One I Love’ is triumphant yet pouring with human emotion. A spacious echo hangs on Kelly’s voice and many elements of the track’s production are evocative of a classic sound. Yet this is no studied recreation. It swings.
You could cast it as a companion to ‘Before Too Long’. But unlike the ’86 single, this Kelly isn’t some solipsist mustering the enthusiasm to seize love. He’s casting aside the burdens he has to embrace it.
‘A Bastard Like Me’
‘Bastard’ is the kind of ballad Kelly has written a hundred times before, but you would listen to a hundred more. The song pays tribute to Charlie Perkins, the first Indigenous Australian to receive a university education. He was also an outspoken activist.
Kelly’s Charlie is a survivor, a proud wearer of heritage and hard-earned scars. A hero to the downtrodden and a bastard to all the rest, Perkins could just as easily be The Man with No Name or Stagger Lee. In Paul’s eyes, he’s as much a rebel as either. It’s all within the attitude, and in the hands of a modest storyteller, folk tales of even the subtlest resistance become powerful things.
The album’s fourth song strips focus down to the lyrics. These words bleed with a carnal melodrama. ‘Little Wolf’ is sun-dried, parched. Just west of Nowhere, Paul plays the stalker. His thoughts turn to lust, leaking with the twisted delirium of thirst.
Like ‘And Death…’, this next song is sentiment-heavy. Kelly recites poet Walt Whitman’s words with a simple directness. They flow as if they were part of his own stream of consciousness. Paul has always been good at making his fascinations the listener’s own.
Usually, it’s through the emotion he puts across, regardless of topic. Here he revels in simplicity. It’s up to the listener to decide whether they’ll follow him there.
‘Bound To Follow (Aisling Song)’
‘Bound To Follow (Aisling Song)’ mingles romance and fevered confusion. Paul is heartsick, twisted in the surreal. These words are all but lapsing into a dark and incandescent dreaming. The vocals take the song to theatrical peaks.
‘Seagulls Of Seattle’
‘Seagulls’ is by contrast, weightless. It’s folk. The comparison is forbidden, but Bob Dylan springs to mind. It’s just a thought, one snaking amidst the distant gull calls and staid melancholy.
‘Morning Storm’ follows with a devotional tone. When it comes to these moments, it feels like Kelly can draw upon an inexhaustible repertoire of thematic nuance. But more importantly, he makes it all feel like it matters.
These stakes are high. Lust and gentle intensity circle. It feels like this entire romance depends on each gesture following the next.
Here the record flows at its most poetic. Words come courtesy of poet Sylvia Plath, who in contrast with the long-lived Walt Whitman (but not too unlike Dylan Thomas) met with an early end. Plath took her life at 30.
Kelly pilfers her thoughts. He sets them to his own contemplation. But really, he can’t seem to shake Sylvia’s erratic pulse.
‘The River Song’
Music contorts time. Artists performing often express that the passing of a few minutes can feel far longer. ‘River’ has that same effect. These lyrics expand a fleeting gaze of split seconds to over two minutes. When it does, it feels like an eternity.
‘God’s Grandeur’ pulls into focus a simple fact. Nature is littered with theological references. Far more heavily than Life Is Fine, and perhaps anything which has come before.
This isn’t to say Kelly is born again. Whenever he’s been called upon to take a spiritual stance, he’s always cast himself as more of an atheist. But then again, he’s never shied away from confessing a fascination with faith.
Can you blame him? We’ve all gotta serve somebody. And hasn’t three decades of Nick Cave records alerted listeners for the fact that some of the greatest Australian records are indebted to The Guy Upstairs?
But it’s all a ruse, a sleight of hand. Kelly’s path to salvation has always lain in earth and people standing on it, that handful of soil Gough Whitlam handed Vincent Lingiari in 1975. This song unfolds with the idea that Kelly’s God is an earthly one. It’s beneath his feet.
‘Trees’ holds Nature’s message — death is ultimately just a smaller step in a greater process. Not revelatory, but stated with depth and intensity, it’s no less profound. The song’s instrumentals peter out and in, highlighting its own impermanence.
Nature is falling under the Kelly spell once more. Enduring artists often risk falling into caricature, but Kelly continues as welcome exception. His 24th solo album reiterates that he’s still holding himself with a vital spark.
The grain of his voice commands attention, firing off with a mystic and dark focus. Even his dissections of faith bear interest. He’s not so much preaching as colouring it with a narcotic turmoil.
Kelly reaches from poetry and elsewhere, but it’s all touched with the beauty of his own imaginative power. At times he might be odds with his own whims and perhaps even testing the limits of craft. But fundamentally Nature tells truths. It’s mapping out this artist’s state of mind. Whether it’s carrying itself upon Kelly’s own thoughts or interpretations of others, rarely does it flag.
Call him heritage if you want, he’s still a seeker.