Paul Kelly’s English literature teacher must sure be proud. The Australian singer-songwriter put five classic poems by major writers on his latest album of a dozen songs, Nature. Kelly begins with Dylan Thomas’ ode to carrying on “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” and ends with Phillip Larkin’s tribute to renewal “The Trees”. In between Kelly includes Walt Whitman’s “With Animals”, Sylvia Plath’s “Mushrooms” and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur”.
While it’s wonderful that Kelly brings these words to life for non-poetry readers to enjoy, there is something tawdry about the whole affair. While Whitman may have appreciated Kelly’s democratic intent on sharing the lyrics to a general audience, no doubt the more snobbish Larkin would have been appalled. The other three bards would probably have mixed feelings because, as Kelly notes in the album’s title, they were more concerned with nature than with the mechanical/electronic reproduction of music.
Although these five poems make up less than half of the songs on the album, they are its guts, heart, and soul. How can a modern musician like Kelly compete with these literary masterpieces? That is one of the great problems contemporary artists share: how can one compose works about such epic themes as love, life, and death when so much great art has already been created on these topics.
Kelly seems to have decided that if you can’t beat them, join them. Some of Kelly’s musical adaptations are more successful than others. The more anthemic the lyrics, such as Thomas’ resistance to death’s finality, the better the song. Others, like Hopkins’ wordy intonation on the holiness of the world’s flora and fauna, are clunky and distort Hopkin’s ability to make use of internal rhymes and rhythms.
Kelly’s original material has its charms. Tracks such as “The River Song” and “Seagulls of Seattle” offer personal statements on the connections about the love of a man and woman and a love of the natural world. Kelly would have us believe that love made on a bed of grass is better than doing it in a sleazy hotel, but his romanticism has its limits. When there’s a “Morning Storm”, shelter is more than a necessity. The rain may be an aphrodisiac for the “Little Wolf” inside of us all, but we still need protection from the elements.
The more rockin’ material, such as “With the One I Love”, allows Kelly to vamp it up and keeps the album from being overly serious. He “no longer cares what’s bad or good”. Kelly only wants to sing his desire in a loud voice that matches the intensity of his emotions. Similarly, he tells the story of the Aboriginal Australian activist Charlie Perkins (“A Bastard Like Me”) in a bold voice as befits the man it’s about.
But as Kelly sings on Plath’s “Mushrooms”, sometimes the greatest acts of rebellion go unobserved unless one pays careful attention. Nature tries to have it both ways. However, it’s a bit too respectful of its sources and inspirations. This keeps the listener from being consumed by the music. A bit more impertinence would go a long way. One wishes Kelly would yawp impolitely and howl insolently as needed to turn his poetic impulses into more musical utterances.