Paul Kelly has secured a place in the Australian popular music canon. His four-decade career has generated upwards of 25 studio albums and various live records and EPs. He’s worked with luminaries like Archie Roach and Spencer P Jones and contemporary acts like Briggs and The Cambodian Space Project.
Right at the beginning of his career, Kelly indicated he wouldn’t be getting bogged down in any one genre. As such, his records have taken in blues, soul, folk, pub rock, new wave, dub, country, bluegrass and Spaghetti Western instrumentals. He’s a tenacious songwriter with an outwardly romantic bent and a love for all things Shakespeare and Bob Dylan.
But perhaps the strongest through-line in Kelly’s catalogue is his knack for conjuring infectious pop melody. Simplified accounts of Kelly’s artistic legacy tend to refer to him as a rocker or folkie, but we’re here to make the case for Paul Kelly as one of Australia’s finest pop songwriters.
1. ‘Before Too Long’:
Sometimes it takes hearing a cover version for you to comprehend the brilliance of an original. The charms of ‘Before Too Long’ were never in doubt, but listening to Alex Cameron’s stripped-back cover from 2018 revealed how impeccably crafted Kelly’s 1986 original is.
The melodies are so insistent and delicious that you can almost ignore the stark pessimism of the song’s opening lyrics. “Before too long,” Kelly sings, “the one that you’re loving will wish that he’d never met you.”
I’ve previously argued that if ‘Careless’ had come out of somewhere like Manchester or Liverpool, it’d be an indie jukebox staple alongside the likes of ‘There She Goes’ by The La’s and James’ ‘Laid’. It’s a peach of a tune. So sweet, in fact, that you’d expect to feel bloated after repeated listens. But Kelly’s trademark lyrical depth prevents this from happening.
3. ‘Sure Got Me’:
Paul Kelly best-ofs tend to focus on his mid-to-late ‘80s period when he was backed by the Messengers (nee The Coloured Girls). But his tunesmanship hasn’t faltered on the other side of Y2K. In fact, his partnership with the Boon Companions – featuring guitarists Dan Luscombe (The Drones) and Dan Kelly, bass player Bill McDonald and drummer Pete Luscombe – sprouted some of his most ageless material.
‘Sure Got Me’ from 2004’s Ways and Means is a straight down the line pop confection, which nods to the legendary girl group sounds of the 1960s.
4. ‘Finally Something Good’:
Kelly turned 60 years old in 2015. Two years later, he released Life Is Fine, which revived the sound of his classic Coloured Girls/Messengers records. This sort of ploy can often expose how a songwriter’s softened with age. But songs like ‘Finally Something Good’ not only trumped the work of any contemporaneous pop songwriters, but appeared no less radiant than Kelly’s early releases.
5. ‘Look So Fine, Feel So Low’:
Not many songwriters can render heartbreak and emotional contradiction with as much animation as Paul Kelly. The narrator of 1986’s ‘Look So Fine, Feel So Low’ has it all – the girl, the garb and the envy of his peers. So, why does he feel so bloody down in the dumps? Kelly and the Messengers deliver this tale of dissatisfaction with a giddy since of abandon.
6. ‘Leaps and Bounds’:
Find me an Aussie expat who doesn’t crumble with homesick yearning upon hearing the rising synth tone that introduces ‘Leaps and Bounds’. One of Kelly’s terser compositions, the first chorus simply consists of the words “I remember”. The hook expands the second time around to include the tail, “I go leaps and bounds.” But Kelly’s lyrical restraint does nothing to hamper the song’s aroma of heartache and lust for life.
7. ‘To Her Door’:
The 2012 documentary film Paul Kelly: Stories of Me features a bunch of footage taken during Kelly’s performance at the 2010-11 Falls Festival. It’s a New Year’s event that typically welcomes a lot Gen-Y partygoers. On paper, a guy who started his career in the late 1970s doesn’t seem like the ideal candidate to amplify the crowd’s hedonistic desires.
However, there’s barely a single crowd member who isn’t singing-along to every word of ‘To Her Door’. Perhaps this should come as no surprise given the song is basically one big hook.
8. ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’:
‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’ is based around a Dylan Thomas poem of the same name. It’s not one of Kelly’s better known concert staples, but it proves his penchant for catchy melody persists even in his more overtly poetic moments.
Although rife with literary incantations such as “Under the windings of the sea / They lying long shall not die windily / Twisting on racks when sinews give way / Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break,” Kelly spins it into a pop tune that’s just as insistent as ‘Careless’ and ‘Sure Got Me’.
9. ‘From St Kilda To Kings Cross’:
Released in 1985, ‘From St Kilda To Kings Cross’ was Kelly’s first great song. It displayed his ability to bind biographical detail with poetic evocation and lick-your-lips melodies. Like the rest of Post, the arrangement is spare and unfussy with guitarist Steve Connolly adding sophisticated detail to Kelly’s plainspoken lead vocal.
10. ‘You Can’t Take It With You’:
Kelly brought the 1980s to a close with his sixth album, So Much Water So Close to Home. It’s possibly the most underrated entry in his expansive catalogue. It mightn’t have the emotional depth of later records like Comedy or the genre-bending enthusiasm of Gossip and Under the Sun, but Kelly’s pop song acuity is on full display throughout.
‘You Can’t Take It With You’ kicks things off, with Kelly giving the impression he could churn out a bounty of pop tunes in his sleep.