The problem with being a national institution is that too many people take your existence for granted and you become a part of the cultural tapestry that over time becomes prone to fading and losing its original lustre.
Paul Kelly is, by any definition, a weaver of one of these tapestries. His music has become the soundtrack to too many public events, and the infectious choruses of his songs are hummed by all and sundry, music fan or not.
This over-exposure is not Kelly’s fault, and it could easily be argued that the problem has arisen due to the consistent high quality of his output over the last three decades.
His latest recorded offering sees his musical stylings mesh with the words of another who had, long before, created the fabric into which the lexicography of all who use our native language has been woven – William Shakespeare.
Seven Sonnets & A Song is the result of this cultural interweaving and, like a lot of Kelly’s more recent work, it is largely a success with few frayed seams.
The first track, ‘Sonnet 138’(‘When my love swears that she is made of truth’), is a jazzy interpretation that is a strange slightly discordant choice to be the opener. Maybe the reason for this lies in the shrewd self denial apparent in The Bard’s words here, ‘Although she knows my days are past the best / Simply I credit her false speaking tongue’, and Kelly is simply pretending to be ‘unlearned in the world’s false subtleties’. Or, alternatively, maybe it is simply a knowing nod to Cleo Laine’s album of jazzy Shakespeare interpretations, ‘Shakespeare And All That Jazz’, to establish some sort of lineage in projects of this type. Whatever the reason, it is out of step with the rest of the collection, and is the least satisfying number here.
Track two, ‘Sonnet 73’ (‘That time of year thou may’st in me behold’), is for me clearly the best track on the disc. It is reminiscent of early Donovan, and would not be out of place on some dusty old vinyl folk compilation from the sixties. Contrary to the first piece, it is very easy here to to accept that ‘in [him] thou see’st the glowing of such fire’, the passionate writer who has risen to the position of being our most admired ‘everyman’ wordsmith.
The stylistic threads of this tapestry continue to entwine fascinatingly in ‘Sonnet 18’ (the oft-quoted ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’) which takes on a madrigal form at the start before morphing into a tune more in an Appalachian country style. Shakespeare’s prophetic summation of how art can never die, contained in the closing lines here, ‘So long as men can breathe or eyes can see / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee’, rings true once again as the sonnet is recycled and reborn once again in Kelly’s version.
Vika Bull takes over for a plaintive take on the adaption of ‘My True Love Hath My Heart’ and, as always, Ms. Bull proves, as a masterful musical seamstress, she has few peers in the Australian musical sweatshop. A delicate and moving performance.
Stitching ‘Sonnets 44 & 45’ together also works beautifully. Here, Kelly’s strength as an emotive vocalist comes to the fore, even whilst recognizing his technical limitations as he coyly confesses, ‘I must attend time’s leisure with my moan’.
‘Sonnet 60’ is made of darker material – as it should be when the opening lines are ‘Like the waves make towards the pebbled shore / So do our minutes hasten to their end.’ He effectively double tracks his vocal but has the second overlaid slightly out of synch with the first which creates the effect of time overtaking us all. A clever and successful idea.
In his day, Shakespeare was not considered to be a highbrow writer, as he has since come to be perceived, but more simply a populist playwright composing comedies and dramas to entertain as broad an audience as possible. Kelly, too, started as a performer of pop and rock tunes for the simple pleasure of an Aussie pub rock audience and has evolved into a weaver of unexpected threads, one who has created an intricate arras out of his insightful urban musical poetry. Both have now had their words published in book form and are studied in schools and tertiary institutions around the world.
It is apt then that this short collection ends with ‘O Mistress Mine’, the Clown’s song from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, a play whose plotline revolves around switching identities and confusion caused through the consequent mayhem that ensues. It is a low-key, humble way to end the collection, it presents a master switching roles and acknowledging his eternal student status; knowing he had a debt to his inspiration, but one that is now paid. Kelly can now, metaphorically, look to put down his needle and seek another artistic direction to explore, admitting though, as he does here, that ‘what’s to come is still unsure’.
A beautifully crafted addition to Paul Kelly’s canon of works.
The fading of his tapestry has yet to begin.
Rating: 4 ½ stars
Seven Sonnets & a Song is available now on CD, download and 10″ vinyl.
Reviewed by Ken Grady