Life is Fine continues in a long-established tradition and serves as something of a return home.
Paul Kelly has burst onto the Australian scene in the early ‘80s but has yet to experience wide acclaim in the American market. This is not only a mystery but something of an injustice. His songs are a mixture of buoyant soul and long, hard looks at the state of the human heart conveyed through his gifts as a wordsmith and a voice that is unmistakably his own. His latest, Life is Fine continues in a long-established tradition and serves as something of a return home.
Following 2012’s Spring and Fall he turned to two unique projects, both issued in 2016: The Shakespearean adaptation Seven Sonnets and a Song and Death’s Dateless Night, on which he teamed with fellow troubadour Charlie Owen on a collection of funeral songs and personal favorites. You can sense some of the funereal on this album’s sexually charged “My Man’s Got a Cold” (featuring Vika Blue) with its dirge-like piano and stomping rhythms; but it can be hard to spot the influences here. He owes something to Dylan at times, but the spacious, narcotic haze of “Rock Out on the Sea” comes from his own voice. There, as often on this collection, the places and people Kelly introduces us to are eccentric and determined. If we don’t linger, we still leave feeling we know them. Are they always worthy of empathy? Kelly seems to think so. The bawdy broad and budding bard receive equal attention during these brief immersions and we can’t help but feel compelled to see them again.
This combination of the earnest and the honest may be the album’s strongest trait. As on the both unrefined and measured poetry of “Letter in the Rain,” Kelly speaks in both the language of the people and the language of myth, hinting at a vanishing Eden while sounding like every heartbroken sap at the corner pub. Similarly, on the seductive “Josephina” he expresses that love doesn’t just visit the wise and worldly, reflected in lines about an ordinary, unglamorous life in which love is about making sacrifices.
The emotional and musical complexities of “I Smell Trouble” (an exploration worthy of The Bard himself) is a late-album apex. With classically-charged piano figures and organ lines loaded with high drama, Kelly allows his voice to become not just the melodic force of the track but an instrument that winds its way between the melodic and rhythmic. It’s one of the album’s finest performances.
The title Life is Fine is both literal and ironic. Existence seems to provide Kelly with plenty of joys, laughter and love. It also provides his characters with challenges and frustrations that lend themselves to the LP’s understated drama. Life is also finite, and time’s closing walls inspire the author: What else can we do, in the end, but embrace life for what is and take each day as it comes? Paul Kelly probably wouldn’t have it any other way, and neither would the characters he draws so carefully in his remarkable songs.