Over the course of a nearly twenty-year career, Australia's Paul Kelly has demonstrated an innate ability to write songs that are as moving as they are memorable. He does so by tapping into feelings and experiences that resonate in everyday lives, recounting the joys and heartbreaks, aspirations and disappointments that affect us all so profoundly.
Kelly's new album, Ways & Means, is no exception. Easily among his best to date, it boasts 21 songs (including a bonus disc of overruns and leftovers recorded during the same sessions) that focus on love and all its repercussions; they showcase his signature style, from the confessional pleas that spark ballads such as "Little Bit O' Sugar," "My Way Is to You," and "Curly Red" to the plaintive, poignant sentiments mirrored in his downcast delivery and ironic yet uneasy lyricism ("Why am I always the one to say I'm sorry like a mother does for a child?"). The album also illuminates the beauty and brilliance in the way he composes, how he describes a sadness that resides just below the surface or the longing for something that seems out of reach, as well as the hope that it will eventually appear. In listening to him, it's nearly impossible to come away unaffected by the emotion he invests in each of these sketches.
While some might think this is maudlin, Kelly's swaying melodies have an upbeat side as well. "These Are the Days" is flush with optimism and an unlikely but catchy chorus ("She don't believe in God or Jesus Christ our Lord/But she sure loves to call their names") that spins spirituality into cynicism. The instrumental opener, "Gunnamatta," with its heavy dose of reverb and guitar twang, sounds like it was snatched from a surf movie soundtrack. "Can't Help You Now" combines a Dylan-esque drawl with a dusty Stones-like swagger. Other outings veer from sly advances ("Crying Shame," "Heavy Thing," and "Nothing But A Dream") and soulful serendipity ("Beautiful Feeling") to down-home desire ("The Oldest Story in the Book" and "Big Fine Girl") and even an optimistic refrain ("Won't You Come Around?").
Okay, it's time to wake up, world. In an era where pop music seems to thrive on mediocrity and predictability, this Ways & Means reflects a singular sound. The result is nothing less than classic Kelly.