by John Kinsella
Life is Fine is a great album — that is, if we agree such accolades can be applied to a creative project, then it is certainly true of this one. It’s so solid, and compacted, and yet full of easeful flow and even patience against barriers of tension and confrontation. No technical ragged edges in terms of its construction — not that there's anything wrong with ragged edges, but this album is musically tight and lyrically perfectly co-ordinated — yet it still has elements enough of rawness and ‘the occasion’ to give a fresh and tuned-in immediacy.
Four of the songs were co-written with Bill Miller, and Kelly is always in collaborative synch with the musicians he works with, sharing a vision. That’s what I respect so much about him — his open ear, open mind, and enthusiasm for sharing and discovery. And given that the title and the lyrics of the title song come from African American poet Langston Hughes, the complexity of irony and affirmation might be lost in the cultural transfer/borrowing, but Kelly is a culturally sensitive and respectful artist who listens and connects without appropriation, his music in dialogue with the original text rather than leaning on, taking, or extracting. Kelly’s is an art of moral integrity as well as a rocking and swinging engagement with the spontaneity of music, and the moment. And he understands the drives of poetry like few other musical performers, singer-songwriters.
If there are ragged edges, they are emotional and creative and fully engaged with; they are in(side) the self battling to find the positive, to keep on top of life — never easy. Those personal ‘ragged edges’ are kept vibrant and dynamic by the superb containment field of the harmonies, of the lead lines, of the shapes of music as a whole. There’s a real literary sense of form in this.
What really makes it occasionally grungy and always tough, even in its ‘sensitive’ personal moments (we might actually believe his love songs!), is the fact that 'trouble' is always close by, that a fall is possible, that the persona knows the threat. We don't know if a crisis will be avoided, we don't know the persona won't 'embrace' it or fall to it, but we go with 'his' hope, we travel the road with him, sail the waters, keep our head above water. We're all okay, too, but only just. Or just maybe. We have to be, we have to try in the face of. And only just is enough to cling on to — the only quota of optimism we can have. Which, strangely, makes the album a celebration of life, love, and survival. In a world of oppression, Kelly offers possible ways out, but all of these are inevitably fraught, zigzagging their way through existence. Langston Hughes knew about oppression big-time, and yet he revivified the word, and in the many threads of the Harlem Renaissance we have confrontation and joy at once, a taking-on of the inequities, injustices and downright wrongs with energy, life, creativity, and optimism in the strength of black Americans in the face of segregation. Hughes could also see the fetishisation of black culture by white culture, and wrote texts that resisted marginalisation, that claimed space for themselves and African American people and culture. Listening to Kelly, one can feel assured he knows what all these mean. The implications.
For me, the essence of Kelly’s album, and maybe a lot of his work, is that on the edge of collapse we find beauty, we survive, and there’s hope. And we flow with the extended metaphor of water generally — ‘waving not drowning’, but also Odysseus wandering his slow and contested way home. Though this album is really something of an 'epic', it’s not an overblown one, never. It’s too minimalist for that. A paradox of richness and constraint. Here’s an artist adept at the idiom, who speaks to the world in a consciously ‘Australian language’, and is comfortable doing so. Nothing contrived about it.
We might admire the album’s shifts from swinging rhythm to foreboding — the keyboard/s really make that work so well. Luscombe's drums/percussion are constrained, but you feel they might let loose — calm before a storm, which is held back. Instead, they taste of the air after rain (and sound of it). Perfect drumming — never in excess. And the bass lines and keyboards selective and generous at once. The guitar/s live between lead and rhythm, between the strum and the pick, and speak as much as the words they are in dialogue with. Liminal stuff! A true conversation of poet and instrument/s.
Let’s admire the 'natural' feel of the recording all the more in the context of this controlled sound. There's nothing pat or formulaic about it, and even the Homeric stock epithet of 'rosy-fingered dawn' is given new life — an accomplishment. It lifts onto the screen!
Kelly is a 'master' of the lyrical segue into key, lifting the word to the music, and more vitally, the music to the word. This is the toughest balancing act — maybe only a 'lifelong' practitioner lyricist/poet/composer can achieve this 'balance'. It's exciting to listen to — the lyric in dialogue with the music, the harmonies offsetting. He achieves a contrapuntal drive with a haunting, sometimes frightening beauty (‘I Smell Trouble').
The Bull sisters are in sublime form on Life is Fine, and 'their' songs are on playback loops in my head. And 'petrichor', one of my favourite words, is given life as the word itself (Russian formalists' ostranenie at work - brilliant!), and Kelly actually gives words odour — you can smell and see the texture of the land. This sensory explosion is subtle, building, and actually exciting in an epiphanic way — that's what makes a love song something else... it’s what makes it universal poetry, yet also so personal. That's the key to this album of slippage between self and society — the individual expressed against a collective, greater world. A lyrical vocabulary of encounter in which the texture of strings is strong, forceful and yet forgiving as well. It also beautifully escapes gender-prisons in surprising ways — as we glissade from one verse to another, as we bridge to the outside world.
And yes, play it loud (as was suggested to me), which in that paradoxical way also emphasises the quiet moments, the moments of witness and encounter, the seeing of the rising moon together. Every song builds lyrically and musically and remains self-contained while reaching out to others songs on the album, like a book of interconnected stories, like a narrative poem. Something of the epic in this, but broken down, and with the delicacy (and intensity) of the seasonal haiku. A polyphonous cultural experience. A musical interlude in a time of crisis. 'Life is fine' — we don't need to jump, even if we are compelled to consider the pressures around us. Resurrection in this, but also the wonder and complexity of spiritual and pragmatic strength. A cycle of songs that respects the space in which it is created — so much rests on the decisions we make. I find it particularly interesting how the persona of the songs doesn't name or know the names of, say, species of birds and trees, but likes to hear them said by someone close. This essence of connection with place is in the vicariousness.
So, maybe it’s Paul Kelly’s masterpiece, or certainly one of them. I re-hear ‘I Smell Trouble’ and the album’s themes haunt and disturb me all over again. Song after song accumulates — and for me, that’s the essence. The album as a whole. The many Kelly moments across the years I cherish are distilled here in one way or another, and then take us elsewhere — from the vocalising spirit of The Merri Soul Sessions to the energy embodied in, say, the bluegrass reversionings and surprises of Foggy Highway (Paul Kelly & The Stormwater Boys), and all the rest of that wondrous song writing poem-making that Kelly weaves in and through his music. This is an album of embodiment. And the final song, ‘Life is Fine’, a setting of lyrics, as noted, by Langston Hughes, takes us into the depths of trauma mediated by the desire and intensity for living: ‘I could’ve died for love/ But for livin’ I was born.’ And Kelly’s setting is a reply and a dialogue with the Hughes lyric — Kelly respects and connects, and never misrepresents or makes false claims. Kelly is adept at making music around pre-existing poems — his fusions are generous, comprehending, and, as said, respectful. In loss we confront extremes and we come out of it calling for life!
But don’t think for a moment that this album doesn’t have moments of levity — it does. As any journey across land or water requires — shifts in tone, the light and the heavy, the aware and the surprised. It’s a work that lives outside its packaging, even its form — it reaches into lives via experiences of life. It lives, it rocks, it sings, it critiques, it respects, it surprises, it survives.