Paul Kelly, are you grieving over golden groves unleaving?
Like other sensitive hard rockers from the past, such as Nick Lowe and Graham Packer, Paul Kelly has mellowed without losing his vitriol. On his nineteenth studio album and first one of new material in five years, the Australian tunesmith has crafted a song cycle about falling in love/falling out of love. It’s a bittersweet tale told with literate and delicate lyrics.
The 11-plus tracks (one hidden bonus cut at the end) depict a relationship from various points of view at different times in the liaison to reveal its highs and lows. It’s just a story, and Kelly is just a story teller. There are no moral lessons learned. Nobody is wiser, although maybe sadder. The reward is in the experience itself; of being in love and of hearing a tale well told.
Kelly’s an educated guy. Not only does he steal the album’s title (Spring and Fall) from that great poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins in a way that deepens the album’s resonances—like the way Bruce Springsteen does by naming his songs after classics like “Dancing in the Dark” and “Walk Like a Man”—Hopkins’ poem is about the awareness of one’s mortality while Kelly croons about the knowledge that love too will end. This comparison suggests the weight of this understanding. Kelly also cites words from English poet John Donne’s “To His Mistress Going to Bed” on the opening track “New Found Year”. Kelly profitable borrows from a variety of musical sources as well, including a female gospel choir chanting “it’s gonna be good” on one track to country fiddle on another, all in the service of the songs.
He’s also good at painting deep or complex emotions in just a few words. Some memorable lines include the acerbic “A woman’s love seeks its companion / as fresh water seeks the brine”, the lovesick “darling you’re one for the ages / I’m glad that you’re here in mine”, and the circumspect “I just want to sleep with someone else / touch some different skin / to do or not to do is bothways false / but one’s a greater sin.” This may not be Shakespearean prose, but its language (“to do or not to do, bothways false”) certainly echoes the Bard of Avon.
The acoustic instrumentation, mostly Kelly and his brother Dan on guitars and vocals, Greg Walker on upright bass, dobro, violin, and harmonica, complements the formality of the presentation that simultaneously has a pop feel. Perhaps it’s the clarity of the way the words are sung and the notes are played, but the album always sounds bright. This would fit comfortably in the radio friendly singer-songwriter days of the early seventies alongside James Taylor and Graham Nash. Like them he knows that yeah, love may be a gift, but it is also life’s greatest source of pain.
As Hopkins noted back in the nineteenth century, as the heart grows older it becomes colder. Kelly eloquently notes that lovers can become “Cold as Canada” because there is “no good way to say goodbye”. That’s life. The attraction of Kelly’s Spring and Fall is that he paints his characters with affection and the dissolution of their connection with grace. Happiness and sadness are the two sides of love. On this album, one cannot have one without the other. I hope he’s wrong, but Kelly’s not preaching. He’s just telling a story.