Despite the fact Paul Kelly posits Nature as a companion piece to 2017’s Life Is Fine, it’s not exactly a sequel. Instead of a unified statement of personal expression, amplified by his expert band, this twenty-fourth album of the Australian’s is a collection of songs from a variety of sources where the resulting performances, many virtually solo like the baroque rumination “The River Song.” sound as varied as the material.
The pervading theme here–the natural world and human nature’s relatively small place in that world—resides in five of the numbers on which Kelly utilizes poems written by others – Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, Sylvia Plath, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Phillip Larkin. Four other numbers derive from poems Kelly wrote himself and later put to music and, like those compositions, three more tunes came to fruition over the last four years, in and around the recording sessions for The Merri Soul Sessions, Seven Sonnets and A Song and Life is Fine.
Hardly a stranger to thoughts of mortality (see 2016’s Death’s Dateless Night), it’s nevertheless daunting to see the twelve tracks here begin with a tune titled “And Death Shall Have No Dominion.” But when the sweeping acoustic guitars give way to chiming electrics, just before Kelly commences singing with resolute cheer, it’s hard to imagine a more upbeat opening. And in a decidedly effective one-two punch of an opening, that track’s quickly followed by what could pass as a primer of folk-rock, “With The One I Love:” the muscular rhythm section pushes along the guitars as those instruments soar to the altitude of the Australian’s exalting vocal in might well be an outtake from Life is Fine (it is the only cut on Nature that evokes such comparison).
Paul is a past master at role-playing in a song like he does during “With Animals,” a tune that along with “A Bastard Like Me,” might posit the author as a curmudgeon if he didn’t sing with such a wry tone. The scant twinkle of instruments behind him there conjures an atmosphere much like the quietly insinuating “Little Wolf” and its eerie single violin, that latter track (and most of its surroundings) short and to the point. In somewhat marked contrast is the longest track here, “Bound to Follow (Aisling Song),” it’s 4:06 in duration near twice so many in the two-minute-plus range on Nature.
This comparatively protracted duration allows the ghostly refrain Kate Miller-Heidke sings to fully cast its spell, while the lighter tones in other female vocals (long-time backing singers Vika and Linda Bull?) also benefit the somewhat ponderous “God’s Grandeur” and “Trees:”: Paul Kelly knows his voice has its limits, flourishing best when directly relating a narrative like the picturesque ones of “Seagulls of Seattle” and “Morning Storm.” Fortunately, this composer’s grasp of the English language matches his eye for detail as a songwriter, so it only stands to reason these tunes thrive with more sparse instrumentation: Kelly knows how to use silence and space to his advantage and does so again on “Mushrooms,” leaving the inferences of the song title to the imagination. This cut thus represents one more display of confidence on Paul’s part as writer and performer, but it also functions as an expression of faith that his listeners they will pay close attention and contemplate what they hear.
Coming so closely on the heels of Life Is Fine, Nature extends a versatile creative roll of Paul Kelly’s that began back in 2014. The ensuing string of thoughtfully conceived and carefully executed projects culminates, at least for now, with this one, an even more expertly varied a piece of work than its predecessors.