While he often conveys a somewhat dour disposition, Paul Kelly remains one of Australia’s most gifted and prolific singer/songwriters, a distinction he’s managed to claim for the better part of the past 30 years. Early albums found him operating in a solid rock mode, employing ad hoc ensembles such as the Dots, the Colored Girls, and the Messengers to assert his decidedly anthemic stance and fist pumping authority. At the same time, he’s demonstrated a desire to gently broaden his palette and add subtle shadings to enrich his dramatic narratives and heartfelt laments.
In recent years, Kelly has expanded his reach into the realms of country and Americana, lending his talents to various film scores and inspiring several tributes from other Aussie artists. Like Bruce Springsteen, with whom he shares an obvious Everyman persona, Kelly isn’t afraid to turn heads by occasionally dipping into a wholly traditional template, further blurring his boundaries and tangling his trajectory.
Even so, The Merri Soul Session may be Kelly’s most daring effort yet. For the most part, he cedes the spotlight to others, turning the microphone over to singing siblings Vika and Linda Bull, and other capable vocalists like Clairy Browne, Dan Sultan, and Kira Puru. Kelly himself limits his time at the mic to only a trio of songs — “Thank You”, “Righteous Woman” and the snappy gospel-like closer “Hasn’t It Rained” — although those three tracks rank among the album’s best offerings. Indeed, the biggest complaint fans may find with this collection is that Kelly himself only occasionally comes to the fore.
Kelly clearly states in the album’s liner notes that that was the intent all along. He insists that many of the songs were written with his collaborators in mind. “Others I’d tried out for myself, but thought they could be done better by someone else,” he concedes. It’s an interesting tack, although the constant parade of lead singers does create a minor distraction. Fortunately, the sound remains in sync throughout, a sensuous blend of classic soul stylings, infectious grooves and a dynamic pop stance. Both “Don’t Let a Good Thing Go” and “Where Were You When I Needed You” could have been culled from the top 40 charts circa the ’60s or ’70s, given those insistent hooks, surefire refrains and a familiar feel that becomes immediately evident even after the first hearing.
Named for the place where the sessions were recorded over two week’s time, The Merri Soul Sessions seems likely to reap conflicting results. On the one hand, it should affirm Kelly’s songwriting skills, and, in turn, bring some recognition that’s long overdue. However, his desire to maintain a low profile could thwart that possibility altogether. Even the cover art buries him in the mix; in the midst of all the participants pictured, Kelly’s presence is anything but obvious.
Nevertheless, the adjectives alluded to in the title – specifically, the words Merri (sic) and Soul, provide a certain truth in advertising. Kelly’s latest is a celebratory set of songs, one that celebrates the high standards he’s always aspired to.