Australian singer-songwriter Paul Kelly doesn’t have a lot left to prove with the 23rd studio album of his career. While he’s never broken big outside of Australia, he’s a beloved songwriter in his own country; he’s a member of the Order of Australia and his 1987 song ‘To The Door’ was included in the APRA list of Top 30 Australian songs from 1926 to 2001. Given his relative anonymity outside of Australia, it makes sense to reference Kelly with other serious, adult song-writers like Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen, but given his vast, accomplished catalogue, he has his own artistic voice and deserves to be recognised among the world’s great song-writers.
While most of his work is in the cross section between folk and rock, Kelly’s carved out a distinguished career by constantly challenging himself – dabbling in dub-reggae with Professor Ratbaggy, and playing bluegrass on 1999’s Smoke. For 2017’s Life Is Fine, Kelly sought to return to the energy of his 1980s albums with The Messengers.
Kelly also took piano lessons, and his piano work is at the centre of ‘I Smell Trouble’, while his access to different chord voicings on the piano informed other songs on Life Is Fine. Unusually for a solo artist, Kelly features guest lead vocalists on two songs on the album; Linda Bull fronts ‘Don’t Explain’, while Vika Bull is larger than life on ‘My Man’s Got A Cold’. Writing from a woman’s perspective allows Kelly a different angle as a song-writer; while the bluesy, dramatic ‘My Man’s Got A Cold’, with its unsympathetic portrayal of man flu, breaks the album’s flow, it’s an excellent song nonetheless.
Elsewhere, Life Is Fine has more conventional, but still excellent, Paul Kelly material. There are pretty acoustic song like ‘Letter In The Rain’, ‘Petrichor’ and ‘Josephina’, while the excellent trio of upbeat songs that open Life Is Fine are a good basis for comparisons to Kelly’s early albums with The Messengers.
In some ways, consistency is a bane for Kelly – he’s been releasing high quality albums for so long that it’s easy to take him for granted. But Life Is Fine is an excellent, high quality effort from one of the world’s unheralded great song-writers, a 62 year old with a great back catalogue who’s still writing strong material.