Famous Down Under
The Australian rocker Paul Kelly is one of the most popular singer-songwriters of the past four decades Down Under, but he has rarely dented the charts here. That’s somewhat surprising in light of the consistent quality of his music. He writes biting lyrics that comment on current social concerns as well as sentimental ones on the vagaries of love and lust. He can rock out on guitar and harmonica. And he has a strong voice that he modulates with fervent intensity and/or quiet passion. His songs have big hooks. They can catch the listener unaware and make one wonder, why isn’t this guy famous around here?
But then again, one can say that about a number of American musicians that share the same traits, such as John Hiatt, Peter Case, Dave Alvin, Joe Ely, et al—and those are just some of the male ones. Still, I am always amazed at the number of music fans who profess to have never heard of Kelly. One would think that after 40 years of recording, he would be better known.
The U.S. release of Paul Kelly’s Greatest Hits: Songs From the South (Volumes 1 & 2), attempts to rectify this situation. The 40 track, double CD contains many of his most popular songs in addition to lesser known ones that were never released in America. In addition, starting in January 2012, physical reissues of Kelly’s original albums (most of which have long been out of print, or never released, in America) will begin to become available via Amazon Disc on Demand. Kelly will also release his eight-CD, 105-song live box set The A-Z Recordings on Amazon, as will as his memoir How To Make Gravy, and its corresponding iPhone and iPad App, which combines the book and the music.
The 2-CD anthology serves as a proper introduction to Kelly’s work. It is chronologically divided. The first disc covers 1985-1997 and contains everything from the garage rock of “Darling it Hurts” to the sweet, acoustic, Dylanesque sad song about a failed love affair “When I First Met Your Ma” to the catchy pop fare of “To Her Door”. While pinning down Kelly’s style during this first decade is impossible as he’s always changing, his lyrics are always literate and innocently romantic. He may understand love hurts, but that doesn’t stop him from being sucker punched.
The second disc (1998-2008) is just as varied and features everything from a country song, “Our Sunshine”, about an outlaw on a horse to the seductive electric guitar driven “I’ll Be Your Lover” to the soft psychedelic sounds of “Thoughts in the Middle of the Night”. His songwriting becomes more mythic, but no less personal, over time. Kelly understands how to put his private concerns in a context so that he can express the complex thoughts and feelings he has. Being honest does not always mean being truthful in the reductive sense. It can also mean being silly, such as in his tribute to the great Australian cricketer Shane Warren, or even just performing instrumentally, as in the windy, shoreline evocation of “Gunnamatta”.
The compilation as a whole does a marvelous job of showing Kelly in a variety of guises. He knows how to sing a story and makes you believe that he’s sharing it with you as a friend. It’s a good thing he’s not selling cars or I’d probably buy the whole lot.