Life Is Fine (EMI)
The Paul Kelly has made an upbeat, band-focused, rock’n’roll album is the newsy bit around Life Is Fine.
After two collections which were essentially songs for a funeral and a “co-write” with noted sonnet writer William Shakespeare, plus a song cycle/epistolary concept album and a soul record which featured multiple vocalists, Life Is Fine seems simpler, straighter, more likely to get compared with Gossip, more obviously fun.
Those are all true and you can find plenty of fun in songs like Finally Something Good, which like the more lustful Firewood And Candles, puts us at the beginning of joy and desire. Both of them too making the most of keyboardist Cameron Bruce around the guitars of Ashley Naylor and Dan Kelly.
And there are some funny lines in the man flu-baiting old blues form of My Man’s Got A Cold and the sea rescue love story Leah: The Sequel, some engaging rhythms in the quick shuffle of Rock Out On The Sea and the Margaritaville-inclined Josephina, and charmingly familiar ‘80s indie rock tones in Don’t Explain (where Linda Bull takes lead) and the tougher Rising Moon.
But at the risk of sounding deliberately perverse, this typically very good album – recorded in two month-long bursts a year apart and separated by some of the albums mentioned above - is I think defined, or raised above maybe, by its two slowest, saddest, songs which close out the record.
In Petrichor, a swaying ballad about letting go, or being let go, the pedal steel (from Lucky Oceans), acoustic guitar (from Paul Kelly) and piano (Bruce) almost play in the background.
It’s not that they are playing softly – they’re not - nor that Kelly’s voice is excessively prominent, but rather there is this weird effect within the listener that posits them as the equivalent of a band playing on a nearby rotunda while the protagonist wanders in search of a reason.
This man, like the forlorn figure in Patty Griffin’s Top Of The World, realises the small gestures and gifts from the lost relationship didn’t just mould him but improved him. The woman he “left leaning on no friend of mine”, while he walked away amid “seabirds wheeling overhead and crying”, knew the names of things, could answer his questions and taught him the meaning of petrichor, “our secret sigh”.
That’s how the song begins, with petrichor, the smell of the ground after rain, and the reminiscence then mingles with an ache that lasts until the song ends on the faint lines “I don’t need you, oh but I want you”.
The final song, the title track, has Kelly’s music set to lines from a poem by Langston Hughes which finds a man – not too far from the one we’ve just been talking about in Petrichor - who sees suicide as the inevitable path.
It seems inevitable anyway, though one attempt had been thwarted by the disconcerting height on the top of one building and another by the uncomfortable cold of the river water.
The track begins with acoustic guitar and voice, a folk music death song in the making, and slowly accretes instrumentation – slide guitar, bass, organ – as death begins to recede. It’s as if balance is restored at first and then the deathweights dwarfed.
What’s clever here is that while the song never becomes bouncy, or even particularly buoyant, by its end the tenor of it has risen from resignation to a kind of rueful acceptance. At least for now.
That’s a victory in its ambiguity, an understanding that life is fine, delicate and at risk, and that life is fine, to be toasted and not just endured, but enjoyed in its own perverse way. Probably.
“Life is fine! Fine as wine! Life is fine!”
APPLE MUSIC: Listen to Paul Kelly – Life Is Fine here