JFK and the Midlife Crisis (Popboomerang)
A concept album about a musician’s travails and travels through a life lived widely if not necessarily wisely? Well, this wasn’t made for 20-year-olds.
And that’s fine; not everything has to be to be considered youth topical or “relevant”. I have it on very good authority that people in their 40s and 50s and - good heavens - older, still have an interest in (A) music, (B) the world, and (C) people using A to discuss/explain B.
And in any case, it’s not as if those youngsters will be excluded since John Kennedy’s songs are (A) eminently hummable, (B) packed with wit and wordplay, and (C) use A and B to make songs as easy to enjoy as, well, ABC.
Mr Kennedy plays to the mature demographic from the get-go with an album title which, in its nod to a certain life turning point (that none of us are experiencing ok? Our refusal to give up band t-shirts from 1985 is about conservation not ossification) refers to both an Irish-Catholic gentleman of some presidential note, and an ancient global turning point involving said gentleman.
It does also remind those who in the early ‘80s were listening to the music of the inner-city pubs, of Kennedy’s breakthrough band, JFK and the Cuban Crisis. More than a bit of self-referential punning though, the timing and location of that memory is crucial because that’s where much of this album is set or from where its protagonist launches: the streets of Enmore, the pubs of Surry Hills, the dreams of Brisbane.
Aside from genuinely interesting character studies, often wryly amusing observations (“don’t call me baby,” says the cast aside boy who immediately loses his certainty and adds “unless you’re coming back”), and the kind of warmth and understanding of human foibles that comes from having been there, done that and ripped the T-shirt, there are two key attractive hooks to snare you here.
First up there is Kennedy’s voice which, as seemed to be de rigeur in the early ‘80s, mixes Elvis Costello (or Graham Parker), Van Morrison, and an amalgam of American country singers.
It’s familiar and comforting – and had me pull out my JFK & The Cuban Crisis Texan Thing EP to indulge some more - but also really engaging. Whether singing about the imagined perils of life on the American/Mexican border, the kids left behind when marriage lost out to music, or wistfully recalling when “everywhere was music”, Kennedy comes across as a slightly worn but story-filled bloke you want to hang out with for a good few hours.
The second hook are these songs which fit neatly into exactly the kind of jangly-pop/urban-country/twangy-rock which was uncommercial in Australia then and now, but seems to stand the test of time better than, say, whatever the hell Noiseworks were doing at the same time.
If you’re looking for comparisons think Nick Lowe, Costello, early-ish Paul Kelly (who is cheerily referenced in From St Peters To Kings Cross) and Squeeze. So, you know, melodies which are at home within two verses, guitar lines that do their business as secondary weapons, drums which also play for subtlety in the mould of one R. Starr, even when hurrying you along in Making American Hate Again, backing vocals that can coo and ooh but also can come over like amused buddies, and choruses that don’t so much invite singing along as make it seem churlish not to.
Thanks to his band of Peter Timmerman on drums, Paul Scott and Murray Cook on vocals and bass and guitar respectively – as well as Jeff Fat on keys, Moe Jaksch on pedal steel and Pete Veliks on banjo (!) – Kennedy makes this ultra-local story ultra-translatable wherever good music was, and is heard.
And the 20-year-olds? Let ‘em learn something I say.