March 2002

Paul Kelly - ...Nothing But A Dream
Cooking Vinyl COOKCD228
Released: 2002

by Joseph Taylor

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

[Reviewed on CD]The black-and-white cover photo on Australian songwriter Paul Kelly’s first US release, Gossip (1987), showed Kelly on stage in the spotlight, wearing an old white T-shirt, playing a Fender Telecaster. His US label, A&M Records, must have thought they were getting an Australian Bruce Springsteen. Kelly was no imitator, of Springsteen or anyone else. He had been recording since the late '70s, and, at 32, he was an experienced, mature songwriter.

Kelly has released eight titles in the US since Gossip, but he’s never found the audience here he deserves. His deeply felt, detailed observations of life and love should appeal to anyone who enjoys well-crafted songs performed with sincerity and passion. Kelly writes about many things, but his major theme is love in all its manifestations -- erotic, spiritual, and romantic. He’s not a sentimentalist. He can be pretty earthy at times and blunt, without being puerile. More often, though, his songs eloquently express the attempt to pull some meaning, love, and friendship out of the confusion of life.

EMI Australia released Kelly’s latest disc, …Nothing But A Dream, last June. Cooking Vinyl has picked it up for distribution here, and they’ve added four tunes that appeared on an Australian EP, Roll On Summer. The disc opens quietly. Kelly fingerpicks the opening chords on acoustic guitar while guitarist Spencer Jones plays a simple melody line. The first verse announces the disc’s major preoccupation, the loss of love through pride or foolishness:

"All the kings and queens in the Bible/They could not turn back time/So what chance have I of a miracle/In this life of mine?/I only want one day/To unsay the things I said/Undo the thing I did/Twenty-four little hours/Oh God, please take them all away/And I promise I will change/If I could start today again."

Kelly is a moving vocalist. I wish I could accurately describe how heartbreaking his plea is when he sings "Oh God" in the verse above. There’s a slight catch in his voice when he sings it, but it sounds real and unforced. So many singers use vocal histrionics to inject false emotion into their performances, but Kelly uses just the right amount of feeling. He doesn’t telegraph the things his carefully wrought lyrics express so well.

The lyrics in …Nothing But A Dream are full of telling details that lift them above the mundane. The narrator in "Midnight Rain" wakes in the middle of the night thinking of a past lover: "What coast are you on? What country? Is it raining there?" In "I Wasted Time," Kelly grapples with the cold facts of middle age, another strong theme of the disc: "I see old friends at funerals now and then/It’s down to this -- it’s either me or them." Kelly is part of a small group of songwriters who have been able to continue writing good pop songs without pretending they still have the same interests or concerns they had when they were in their 20s.

…Nothing But A Dream takes a few tracks to gather steam -- it doesn’t really start to rock until the fifth tune, "Somewhere In the City." The two tunes that follow are both rockers, but the last four wind things back down. Because of its somewhat reserved feel, it might be easy upon a casual first listen to miss the emotional power of this disc. It bears repeated listening because its effects, both musical and lyrical, deepen with each listen.

Apparently Kelly recorded some of the basic tracks in a recording studio in his garden shed. Don't let that frighten you away, because this is a great-sounding disc. The acoustic guitars ring clear and true -- they sound like they were miked directly. The drums snap on the rock tunes without being too far forward, and the drummers, David Ruffy and Peter Luscombe, bring a more delicate touch to the quieter tunes. The keyboards, played by Bruce Haymes, are used with great care and subtlety, particularly on the tracks where Haymes plays organ. Steve Hadley plays an astonishing stand-up bass in "I Wasted Time" that is just gorgeously recorded. Throughout the disc a number of musicians, many of them new to me, help Kelly bring his songs across with an unusually high sensitivity to his goals.

The four tracks added to the US release are great, and I'm glad to have them, even "Every F**king City" (good tune, but I program it out when the kids are around). I'd suggest that you listen to the disc a few times as it was originally released. The pace of the disc is intentional, and continuing through to the bonus tracks breaks the spell somewhat. It's a quiet masterpiece.