When Australian singer/songwriter Paul Kelly and his band
the Messengers began releasing records in America in the mid-80s, critics
couldn’t fall over themselves fast enough in praise of his incisive, moving
writing and the band’s versatile rock & roll drive. Four LPs later (three
major, one indie), the Messengers’ career was seemingly over, leaving behind a
strong body of work that barely scraped the bottom of the charts. Kelly put out
a couple of solo records on American folk stalwart Vanguard, then disappeared
back into the wilds of his home country.
Or so it seemed. The truth, of course, is that Kelly has a
long, revered career in Australia
that began well before the first Messengers record Gossip was issued on A&M in the States, and it continues to
this day. Greatest Hits, a
combination of a pair of Australian best-ofs, serves as a sampler in advance of
a more comprehensive reissue campaign, and a reminder for Stateside audiences
of the man’s general brilliance.
Disk one (“85-97”) mostly covers the Messengers years,
sampling the band’s four studio LPs and B-sides collection for an overview of
the thematic concerns that drive Kelly’s work to this day. The blazing drive of
“Sweet Guy” and the singalong folk rock of “Before Too Long” look hard at
once-loving relationships as they crack and divide. The harmonica-drenched
“Dumb Things” (one of the 80s’ finest singles) rocks fiercely through what
sounds like bemused self-deprecation at first, before it becomes clear that
self-laceration is a more fitting description. “Everything’s Turning to White,”
perhaps his most acclaimed tune, puts Raymond Carver’s classic short story “So
Much Water So Close to Home” to bitter, gentle folk music.
Like his countrymen in Midnight Oil, Kelly naturally uses
his home for inspiration. While that may have been what kept him from finding
the audience he deserves outside Australia
(especially in notoriously musically xenophobic America), it’s what makes him a
hero at home. But you don’t need to be from Down Under to appreciate the
lilting “From Little Things Big Things Grow” – a tale of one man fighting for
native rights that will resonate with anyone who lives in a conquered country.
The beautiful pop song “From St. Kilda to Kings Cross” and the pounding rocker
“Darling It Hurts” (“to see you down Darlinghurst tonight”) may namecheck
specific Aussie locales, but the emotions evoke universal empathy.
Disk two (“98-08”) finds Kelly exploring options outside of
a five-piece rock band, which he felt was too confining. Ironically, the effect
is to make some of his later music a bit too generic, with a wandering sonic identity.
But the songs themselves maintain the standards set earlier in his career, and
when they’re good, they’re as good as any contemporary singer/songwriter you’d
care to name. The grooving, expansive “Love is the Law” puts a new spin on his
anthemic tendencies, with a surprisingly positive message to match. The childhood
reminiscence “They Thought I Was Asleep” and the parental warning “Song of the
Old Rake” use bluegrass band Uncle Bill as backup, while the ethereal “Thoughts
in the Middle of the Night” places restless introspection in a sonic stew that
sounds inspired by Daniel Lanois’ atmospheric production techniques. The
killer’s confession “God Told Me To” moves Kelly back to bracing rock &
roll, while the sardonic travelogue “Every Fucking City” strips him down to
voice and guitar, leaving both humor and heart naked in a crowd.
As bold a statement as it may sound, Kelly’s body of work
deserves rediscovery more than just about anyone’s. Greatest Hits: Songs From the South Vol. 1 & 2 provides the basic
tools to lead to an archaeological dig of major significance.
Things,” “Darling It Hurts,” “Everything’s Turning to White,” “Every Fucking
City,” “Thoughts in the Middle of the Night,” “Love is the Law” MICHAEL TOLAND