I'm probably the last person on earth who should be telling you about Paul Kelly and what he means to the Australian music scene. I'm not Australian. It's like explaining to a non-New Jersey native the power of Bruce Springsteen, or a non-Brit the idiosyncratic observations of Ray Davies. I've never seen the man perform live, or felt the rapture of the people for his music. I only know what I've read and what I've heard.
And through all that, there's only one conclusion to draw; Paul Kelly is a legend.
Having first started his career as Paul Kelly and the Dots, his reputation for cutting wit songwriting grew rapidly. Soon the Dots disbanded, replaced by The Coloured Girls and that reputation continued to grow. He was the songwriter other songwriters went to see perform. He was the national poet, painting seeping pictures of Australian life, good and bad. Particularly drawn to the seedy underbelly of the Aussie streets and the political problems facing his nation. Finally, on the eve of International recognition and US interest in importing his album, The Coloured Girls was changed to the less inflammatory The Messengers, and with that "Gossip" was released as Paul Kelly's first foray onto American soil.
And what a debut it was.
Originally 24 songs, it was pared down to 15 for the US release (then expanded to 17 on the CD). Kelly specializes in the sort of wry, observational songwriting that critics love, and indeed, upon release in 1987, I remember Rolling Stone Magazine raving about the witticism and storytelling on "Gossip". It wasn't long before the CD made it's way into my collection (now accompanied by the vinyl). And they were right. Although "Gossip" is nearly 30 years old, it maintains a certain timeless elegance. No dated "80's" production flourishes mar the songcraft. No unwieldy drum machines or synths ruin it's flow.
What we have is impeccable songwriting. It's hard to truly capture the feel of Kelly's craft. I think of him as an Australian Gram Parker (although not quite as angry) or a down-under John Hiatt (but with a better grasp of melody). Maybe a "not trying to be as clever" Elvis Costello. His stories are real and gritty, slices of real life, tension and pain. Kelly likes the losers, the drug addicts and abused. Taking these slice of life vignettes, Kelly wraps his views around a varying decor of musical flavors, whether reggae-tinged "Last Train to Heaven", classic 80's pub-guitar rock, "Before the Old Man Died," post-Byrds jangle "Leaps and Bounds" or raving garage rock "Darling it Hurts." "Incident on South Dowling" brings in a blues-tinged rockabilly while "Stories of Me," wallows in the mire of a tin-pan alley jazz affection. Rocking or subtle, you never know where Kelly's muse will take him but it all hangs together perfectly, tied together by the threads of Kelly's stories and his distinctive, nasal voice.
Throughout it all, Kelly is defiantly Australian, spicing his tales with names and places that mean nothing to non-Aussies like myself. Still, the imagery is universal and the songs captivating in any locale.
Then, on my first visit to Sydney, I finally figured out the true power behind a song like "Darling it Hurts." Over a dirty-as-can-be, distorted garage blues riff, Kelly rails about seeing his girl "standing on the corner with her dress so high", amongst the tale of love taking a bizarre turn as he finds his woman hooks on the streets of the infamous Darlinghurst neighborhood, Sydney's infamous red light district. It's unclear if it's the story of a man who's obsessed with a hooker or finds his own woman with a sudden lifestyle change, but it gives rise to one of the best lines on the album, "Darling it hurts to see you down Darlinghurst tonight."
Highlights are far too numerous to mention. In fact, Gossip plays out as a Greatest Hits of sorts, because many of these songs simply have never been topped by Kelly in his many subsequent albums. I'm partial to the mid-paced blues-reggae "Last Train to Heaven" that brings the album in with it's mournful harmonica over the scratch of the reggae guitar. Then there's the morbidly fascinating "Incident on South Dowling" where Kelly "coudn't save his baby" as she lay four feet away dying from a drug overdose. Played out over an alternating light and airy chorus with some menacing blues harmonica and searing guitar taking over the verses. "The Execution" rocks with a delicate finesse, with it's searing vision of the Aussie underbelly. "Down on my Speedway" is raging Aussie pub rock. And finally, "Stories of Me," with it's gorgeous saxophone accompaniment of a "morning after" self-assessment of his life as it descends into a miasma of alcohol and bitterness. (Ever since you said goodby, I've had a reputation/I'm not drinking on the sly, I'm the star attraction/every morning I wake up, fill my cup, and listen bitterly/ to stories of me.)
Paul Kelly's next album "So Much Water, So Close to Home" was supposed to be his big breakthrough, produced in America with help of Scott Litt of REM fame. But the Americana feeling didn't quite click with the US audience, and worst of all, he lost some of his unique Aussie flavor. After one more album, Kelly disbanded the Messengers and continued to release solo albums to this day, as well as work on social causes, like the Building Bridges project to give the Aboringal man full rights under the Australian constitution, and work with bands like Yothu Yindi. His first Greatest Hits album "Songs from the South" went double platinum and inspired another collection "Songs from the South Volume 2" released in 2010.
In truth, you can't go wrong with any Paul Kelly album, solo or with the Messengers (or Dots or Coloured Girls). And there's nothing wrong with a Greatest Hits if you're looking for someplace to start, but if I was only ever gonna buy one album, it's this one. Gossip. Pop it in and learn what those in Australia have known for years. Paul Kelly may simply be the country's greatest lyricist and songsmith.