Fusion of faith, rock and love

Published May 1, 2002

Veteran Australian singer and songwriter Paul Kelly has a musical range from rage and dry wit to regret and tenderness.

PLENTY OF music artists have a vibrant faith walk, and they express that walk in their art. By definition, they are ideal subjects for this column.

Less obvious subjects are artists like the veteran Australian singer and songwriter Paul Kelly. A faith walk is not a prime focus of most of his songs on his latest disc, the just-released Nothing But A Dream. His melancholy tales, usually on matters of the heart, range from rage and dry wit to regret and occasional tenderness.

However, the Christian observer will be struck by the fact that the lion’s share of the songs has Christian references. Usually, they do not even approach proselytizing. Rather, they are simply a matter-of fact awareness that faith, spirituality, and the church are part of the everyday lives of everyday people.

[pullquote]”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,” Kelly sadly sings to begin the album’s opening track If I Could Start Today Again. Aware of his frailties, he admits “I know I’m not the milk and honey kind” and he concludes “I know my prayer’s in vain.” Regardless, this song, its starkly gentle acoustic backdrop recalling Kelly’s earliest work, displays a deep awareness that God is part of the equation.

That reference point is equally clear in songs such as I Wasted Time, a poignant folk rocker of an aging man who savoured life and now goes to funerals for old friends with the attitude “It’s down to this; it’s either me or them.” Fused with the sense of regret – “I wasted time, now time is wasting me” – his bottom line is “Now it’s closing time. Won’t you pray for me?”

Would You Be My Friend is a soulful, melancholy anthem of love. Whether the subject is human or divine is unclear, but the former is plausible, even before the trademark acerbic wit of the late line “If I’d passed the point of no return like a poor, puking child in church, would you be my friend?”

Even a straight love song like the swirling popper I Close My Eyes And Think Of You sees Kelly’s character employing a spiritual theme in his declaration, “I know there’s a raging river. I’ve heard about the golden shore. But I would pass by all that beauty just to be with you once more.” He makes a similar reference to the afterlife in the melodic folk rocker The Pretty Place, but, in this song, Kelly is aware that this earthly life is near an end, and he declares, “In my mind I see the light. I’ve never been so ready. Now I’m going to the pretty place.”

Much of this album follows the folk rock terrain that Kelly has traversed for most of his long career. He is a legend in his native Australia for such music, though he is little known in North America apart from the 1986 double album Gossip, which came out as a single LP on this side of the world.

Nothing But A Dream, however, sees the 47-year-old Kelly move into some alternative styles. These songs, too, bear lots of spiritual references.

Just About To Break sees an industrial edge added to the folk bedrock. This aggressiveness, coupled with the minor chord-based melody, fits the torment and desperation of a character in a personal apocalypse. “I’m just about to break,” he continually declares, but reading the lyrics as a parallel to the life of Jesus Christ is no stretch. After using the multiplication of fish and bread as a metaphor, he ends the song by singing, “I’m heaven-sent to spill my stuff. My heart, my heart is full of love. I’m just about to break.”

The album’s most obvious fusing of faith and life, though, is Love Is The Law. Another fusion of industrial noise with folk roots, this anthemic and dense rocker is a direct exposition of 1 Corinthians 13. It would do U2 proud with its chiming guitar, meaty beat, and strident message.

There is much of interest to the fan of articulate contemporary music with a spiritual frame of reference in the work of Paul Kelly. Even without mentioning the exquisite Midnight Rain which typifies the best of his discography through the years and is the best bet for adult contemporary single hit status, Nothing But A Dream is a rich mine of treasure.

Wilfred Langmaid is Anglican chaplain at the University of New Brunswick and music critic for the Fredericton Gleaner.


Keep on reading

Skip to content