Paul Kelly is front and center, singing in a conversational voice or playing in an intimate manner. In this age of trouble, Kelly offers solace in vernacular tones.
In an interview with an Australian publication, Aussie singer-songwriter Paul Kelly explained that the title of his latest release Life Is Fine can be understood in two ways. The first and most obvious one is that life is a good thing. The other interpretation is that life hangs by a thin thread. Life should be treasured because it can end at any time. Kelly did not write the lyrics to the title song. He put the words of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes to melody.
Life Is Fine
Release Date: 11 Aug 2017
Hughes' narrator is a young man who sees the richness of life ahead. The last stanza goes:
“Though you may hear me holler,
And you may see me cry--
I'll be dogged, sweet baby,
If you gonna see me die.
Life is fine! Fine as wine! Life is fine!"
He sounds downright jaunty. “Fine as wine," indeed! Kelly takes a more circumspect approach and sings the lines with the conviction of a man who has experienced living but comes to the same conclusion. Life may be full of pain. The obstacles to happiness are many. But compared with death, there is no doubt that life is better.
The song “Life Is Fine" may end the album, but as it serves as the record's theme beginning with a reference to it seems quite in order. The 12 songs (with the other 11 whose lyrics were written or co-written by Kelly) elaborate on life's ability to throw curves and the importance of resilience and understanding. Kelly doesn't preach as much as he tells stories, sometimes through the voice of another singer, and through the sound of his (mostly) acoustic guitar. The messages can be found between the lines.
“I Smell Trouble" Kelly protests over a slow piano riff. He moans at the fate he sees coming but can't escape. Or he remembers past glories that ended with a “Letter in the Rain". Like the narrator of “Life Is Fine", Kelly just keeps on going even though love has ended. He explicitly complains about a lover too sick to pleasure on the bluesy “My Man's Got a Cold", sung by Vika Bull. What to do when one's lover has the flu—find a new body to love. That's cold! No fake sympathy for the ailing here. Life is fine as infinite.
Sometimes life can be sweet. Kelly praises the simple joy found in making a meal for the one you love, soft light and kisses, in the beguiling “Firewood and Candles". And the narrator may be a disreputable wretch, but that doesn't stop him from enticing “Josephina" away from work and up to his place or noting “Finally Something Good" can happen after long dark days of living alone. Life can be as fine as wine…
The most interesting song on the album is Kelly's response to Roy Orbison's cheeky “Leah" about a diver in search of pearls for his girl who ends up drowning. Kelly's “Leah the Sequel" has the diver washed up and the beach and given CPR. He gives the pearl he found to Leah who takes it as a token of his love. Now he works for her dad in the cannery. Leah's hidden his snorkel. They are together for the long term. No foolish acts of bravery are needed anymore. Life is too fine to be thrown away.
Kelly's accompanied by a corps of talented musicians: Bill McDonald on bass, Ashely Naylor on electric guitar, Cameron Bruce on piano and organ, Vika and Linda Bull on harmony vocals, and other players as needed. Despite the number of instrumentalists, the album sounds personal. Kelly is front and center, singing in a conversational voice or playing in an intimate manner. In this age of trouble, Kelly offers solace in vernacular tones and reminds one that life itself is a good albeit tenuous thing.