It’s not often that you get to experience three ways to enjoy the iconic Aussie storyteller Paul Kelly but I was lucky to do just that.
It started off with a one-on-one interview with the man himself. Talking about his new album along with some interesting anecdotes along the way, including the sounds of a wardling magpie with a New Zealand connection but more on that later.
Paul Kelly’s 24th album is a special one for many reasons. Aptly named Nature, it captures all the elements of the title including death, animals, fungus, water, and human experience. It’s made up of eight poems: five by others and three of his own, plus four new traditional songs with his characteristic storytelling signature.
Paul told me that this had been building for a while. It started six years ago when he ran a project with some young classical musicians and put poems to music in a live show and tour around Australia.
Initially he thought that using poems as the starting point would somehow restrict the music in some way. As he has discovered this hasn’t been the case at all. The project was called Conversations with Ghosts and it opened the door for him to really interrogate this style a little further.
The first poem he put to music was by his idol William Shakespeare called Sonnet 18, which coincidentally back in 2016 was the 400 year anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. This opened the door for Paul and the last song on his previous album, Life is Fine, also the name of the track, was written by American poet Langston Hughes.
I shared with Paul that some songs can feel like a poem as well. The example I used was the song I read out at my father’s funeral three years ago by Peal Jam called Man of the Hour. To me it captured Dad perfectly with lines like
“Nature has its own religion; gospel from the land
Father ruled by long division, young men they pretend
Old men comprehend”
This resonated with Paul and was a great segue to the opening track of Nature called And Death Shall Have No Dominion, a poem by the great Dylan Thomas. It’s a cracker of a track too. Opening with a nice acoustic guitar, the broader band softly added to the background, which allowed the words to be front and centre. Recited at many funerals, it is an uplifting verse and, put to music, it truly set the tone for the rest of the album.
The second leg of this musical trifecta was attending a small live acoustic gig that Paul played at Neil Finn’s Roundhead Studios. A small, excited crowd hung on every note as Paul played five songs, four off the new album and one that he is hoping to release later, perhaps off his 25th album, and which connects to my magpie story.
Paul kicked off the 40 minute show with his first release and second track off the new album With the One I Love. Perfect timing when writing this review I might add. Again it’s a great track with far more energy and angst about love torn between two hearts and the one he loves wins out, but not without some regret and sense of loss I suspect. Something that many I am sure can relate to. It’s wonderfully upbeat with storming guitars and having the full band behind him drives this short ditty close to the yellow lines on the road.
A Bastard Like Me was his second live song of the night and it was great to hear the story of Charles Perkins, a renowned Aboriginal Rights activist who was born in Alice Springs to parents of both English and Aboriginal decent. The song highlights the trials and tribulations he had as a kid somewhat cast out by all because of his two different heritages.
Back in the 40s, when tolerance was a word not often used, Charles had to fight his way through life (literally). The song captures his anger and determination, which led him to become the first graduate of Aboriginal decent at an Australian university. The title of the song came from his autobiography.
One of Paul’s own poems follows titled Little Wolf. It’s a solemn verse that has a tortured violin running through it’s entirety and slows the album down to a nice walking pace that allows you to take time to look around and enjoy the serenity.
The same pace and style continues With Animals and Bound to Follow in the middle section of the album.
It’s worth mentioning this album is compact. Not one track is over three minutes long, highlighting the impact poems have instead of the usual approach of creating a tune or melody first. It really is a journey through nature and, in most cases, a minimalistic use of instruments helps to focus the ear on the words, with the melody providing a path to follow them.
The more upbeat track Seagulls of Seattle came to pass from one of the many times Paul was away from home and feeling a little homesick. He was walking along the harbour of Seattle when the poem came to life and it’s a splendid track that has tons of melody: you can almost hear the gulls squawking and smell the salt air hitting your senses.
Mushrooms was the pick for me in his live set. It was genuinely quite special. You could have heard a pin drop as he gently picked the notes off his beaten old six string guitar and the small audience was hanging on every note. The production on the album is also worth a mention. Many of the tracks, if not all, are virtually recorded live with very little production needed, which I guess aligns with the nature theme and if this was his intention he has delivered it in spades. Less is certainly more here.
The closing tracks River Song, Gods Granduer, and The Trees showcase one of his major influences, Bob Dylan, with hints of early reflective Van Morrison thrown in. It’s a fitting way to wrap this album up. Totally different to his previous effort but for me it is a more complete picture of his place in the world today.
Nature has many elements yet somehow they all fit tied nicely together and a worthy addition to anyone’s music collection.
The closing track in his live set connects that Magpie story I mentioned at the beginning of this review. I was talking to Paul and reflected that given the title of the album I half expected the sound of squawking magpies on the album to bring the local nature to life. He rightly corrected me and said their sound is more like a wardle but it was funny that I mentioned it because he had recently written music to a poem called The Magpies by our very own New Zealand poet Denis Glover. His hope, sometime in the near future, is to get permission to record it for an upcoming new project. Not an easy song to sing but he managed it perfectly and hopefully you will get to hear it one day soon.
The intention of the poem was to indicate the passage of time and yet the timelessness of nature. A human lifetime passes, while the underlying natural life - symbolised by the unchanging backdrop of the magpies' call - remains unchanging. I couldn’t think of a better way to close this review because it sums up the whole experience perfectly.
Paul Kelly's new album Nature is released today and available at all stores and streaming platforms.
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Released: 12 Oct 2018