Paul Kelly – Songs From the South 1 & 2 (CD review)

Paul Kelly- Songs From the South Volumes 1 & 2 (Gaw Daggie) CD review

He’s never scored a Top 40 hit in America, or landed an album on the Billboard charts, but as Songs From the South Volumes 1 & 2 proves, Paul Kelly is one of the most gifted songwriters of the last 25 years.  His strength is being able to take the mundane happenings of everyday life and turn them into something far greater, kind of like having a bunch of little 3 minute movies.

Take, for example, “Winter Coat,” from 1991, where Kelly talks of an old overcoat that has outlasted the relationship he was in when he first bought it.  It is a rare lyricist that can consistently write about love and not seem cheesy or overwrought, and therein lies Kelly’s true talent.  “When I First Met Your Ma” is a great example; Kelly chronicles the beginning of a budding relationship, sung with such honesty that you’d swear you were a part of it.  “Deeper Waters” charts a young boy becoming a man, while “How to Make Gravy” is a love letter from prison sent during Christmas time.  “To Her Door,” his biggest hit in his native Australia, follows a man who screwed up his relationship and is trying to make things better.  But, in all those examples, he never gives too much away, instead preferring to leave things open-ended, forcing the listener to draw their own conclusions.

Kelly has dressed his songs in a variety of ways over the years.  The early sides on disc one, like “Before Too Long,” have a jangly, Beatle-esque quality.  As time goes on, he adds heavier guitars with mixed results.  It’s odd that the only two Kelly songs that received any rock radio play in the States – the Sir Douglas Quintet infused “Darling It Hurts,” and the stomping “Dumb Things,” are okay, but pale in comparison to his more introspective work.  What makes this collection so interesting is that he seems to get inspiration from everywhere – like the epic “From Little Things Big Things Grow,” which talks of the land struggles of the Aborigines, or “Everything’s Turning to White,” based on a short story by Raymond Carver in which several friends find the body of a dead woman while fishing in a remote area in Canada, but continue to fish for the remainder of the weekend before actually notifying police.  The fact is, there isn’t a bad tune amongst the tracks on disc one (which covers 1985-1997).

Perhaps you might notice a slight drop off in disc two (covering the 1998-2008 years), but there’s still plenty of highlights.  “Nothing on My Mind” is an exercise in him not digging deep, just wanting the superficial for a change.  He experiments with bluegrass on “Our Sunshine” which has excellent harmonies on the chorus.  The live “Every Fucking City” is Kelly spinning another great yarn of a relationship gone sour, where he references a Ricky Martin song and gets a good chuckle out of the audience.  Another great one is “They Thought I Was Asleep,” which recounts a boy witnessing a teary exchange between his parents when he was supposed to be napping in the back seat.  The fact that he can be abrasive in one song and achingly poignant in the next, truly shows the depth of his songwriting.  And, while every love song seems to glorify the young, “You’re 39, You’re Beautiful, and You’re Mine” is one for us geezers.

A two-disc set might seem like a lot when, odds are, you probably haven’t heard Paul Kelly’s music before.  But, between his excellent songwriting, his knack for a great melody, and a desire to try different styles, Songs From the South Volumes 1 & 2 is a surprisingly great listen, from start to finish.  If you’re looking for something you might have missed the first time around, start with Paul Kelly.  –Tony Peters