Life is Fine: Paul Kelly Goes Electric

It's a debate as old as those fateful moments when Bob Dylan first plugged in and went electric: are you the kind of listener who prefers singer songwriters to perform and record acoustically? Do drums and electrical current automatically add a taint? Must singer songwriters always be alone?

Still not as well known in the States as he should be, Australian Paul Kelly, started his musical life as a solo player with just his voice and a guitar. He later spent time in bands, the best known of which was initially called the Coloured Girls, a name later changed for obvious reasons to the Messengers. That group's 1986 double LP Gossip (edited to a single disc for US release) remains one of Australia's most acclaimed rock masterworks.

As a songwriter, Kelly has always been a captivating storyteller, a sometimes painfully honest observer of everyday life and a craftsman who knows a melodic hook when he hears it. He's written in a number of styles, from country and bluegrass to dub reggae and full-on four-piece rock. His work and stage presence have drawn comparisons to everyone from Dylan and Steve Forbert to Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen.

At 62, Kelly now follows a tribute to Shakespeare, Seven Sonnets & a Song and Death's Dateless Night, a mostly covers duet record with Aussie rock vet Charlie Owen, with Life is Fine, a welcome return to Kelly in a band context. After a listen or two, it's clear that the timing in terms of his career for a rock record seems indelibly right. He has a lot to say and he needed more than just his guitar and voice to say it. There's nothing fancy or mysterious here—just love, loss and the endless churn of human-on-human relationships all set to sturdy melodies and predictable rhythms. Surprising and a little scary how few listenable records that fit that once ubiquitous description are being released these days.

Happily, the old master Kelly, who's wrestled enough personal demons and seen his share of emotional turbulence, infuses this album with a lot of elemental questions he seemingly cannot yet answer. On "I Smell Trouble" he ponders "All I gotta do is step aside/Why can't I?" The Australian vocal duo Vika and Linda Bull add heft to the album's vocals; joining Kelly on the buoyant "Finally Something Good" which opens with "You're a long cool drink of water on a blazing summer's day/You're autumn trees undressing in the month of May." Darker but no less upbeat is "Don't Explain," sung by just the Bulls, where a woman in love turns realistic and with no small amount of relief sings, "Don't explain/It's really not your style/I've had some fun/You really made me smile." Vika Bull steps out and gets convincingly gritty in the slow beat R&B of "My Man's Got a Cold."

While the frisky single here "Firewood and Candles" has Kelly arranging a love nest with "Wine in the bottle/Paella cooking in the pan/Elvis on the stereo/I'm a man with a plan," the massed harmony vocals and Wurlitzer backing of the slower, almost Brian Wilsonesque, "Leah: The Sequel" is the album's strongest number. The LP pressing here is especially fine: heavy, dead quiet, and worth every penny.

Although the whole cooking shtick in the video below may not have been the best choice—just like plugging in seems like a misstep to those who like their folkies well . . . folky—there's no denying the craft and likability of this melody from Life is Fine.

DanGB's picture

I have quite a few Paul Kelly albums, dating right back to when his band was called The Dots. You do get the occasional worthy dirge, but when he's on top form, he deserves much wider recognition.

'Gossip', 'Under the Sun' and 'So much Water, so close to Home' make a fine three-in-a-row of releases. I'd compare him to John Prine, as much as anyone.

The later song 'Every F*cking City' is still a very funny tale of lost love across Europe's tourist destinations.