Legendary Australian songwriter Paul Kelly reconciles his trademark acoustic style with the works of Shakespeare on his latest album, Seven Sonnets and a Song.
For the inhabitants of his native Australia, amalgamating the works of Paul Kelly and Shakespeare will seem like a no-brainer. Since entering the scene in the 1970s, Kelly has garnered a reputation as one of the finest songwriters that the land down under has ever produced. His latest release, Seven Sonnets and a Song, is among the most ambitious of his 40-year career. On this literary concept album, Kelly takes the text of seven sonnets and—you guessed it—a song, and set them to music. All but one of the texts used are works by William Shakespeare, who has been a longstanding influence on Kelly’s career.
The album’s artwork, which features an image of Kelly superimposed onto a portrait of William Shakespeare, prepares us for the stark beauty and relative seamlessness of the record as a whole. However, it's in a style somewhat uncharacteristic of Kelly that the album begins, with "Sonnet 138". As Kelly presents the paradox that "my love swears that she is made of truth / I do believe her, though I know she lies", his accompaniment is similarly perplexing for fans of his work; rather than opt for his trademark stripped-back, largely acoustic style of songwriting, Kelly offers up a dark, jazz-affected tune. The song is laced with lyrical and musical mystery, as both Shakespeare and Kelly’s musings come together immaculately.
The shoe doesn’t always fit, however, as Kelly’s vocal melodies sometimes feel as if they struggle to contain the delicate verse to which they are being set. Throughout the record, Kelly is able to capture the passion and emotion of his subject matter, but at times, the execution isn’t always as clean as it could be. Parts of ‘Sonnet 73’ are the guilty parties here. These brief mismatchings are all the more jarring when you consider how effortlessly Kelly usually melds dark lyrical subject matter with even darker, more graphic musical accompaniment. That marriage isn’t always there throughout this record.
More often than not though, Kelly handles Shakespeare’s verse very sensitively. Impressively, the points of tension and release in the sonnets are echoed in the harmony of the music. For example, ‘Sonnet 18’ sees Kelly’s chordal harmonies shift and the accompanying strings stir as he relates that ‘in eternal lines to time, thou grow’st’. Seven Sonnets and a Song is hardly reserved for literary or music snobs, however. On that note, perhaps Kelly’s greatest achievement on the album is making Shakespeare accessible to all listeners. Even though he has shifted from telling of sporting legends and the redemption of blue-collar protagonists to adapting the works of Shakespeare, Kelly never compromises his musical roots. He’s still the same Paul Kelly that we know and love, colourfully pouring his emotions into the strumming of an acoustic guitar and his drawling vocal style. Kelly’s genius is enhanced by the fact that his style is minimalistic enough that the lyrics are never encumbered by the music; the music is a vehicle for entry, but one which allows the lyrics to remain in the foreground. The songs may not always have the same consistency of execution or Aussie working class appeal, but they’re still distinctly Paul Kelly, and are, across the board, a stirring tribute to the Bard that only the Australian songsmith could have come up with.