Paul Kelly, Post (1985)
Sure, Paul Kelly’s influences keep popping up. Kelly sometimes seems like a rock-critic-invented mixture of Joe Strummer, Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, Graham Parker, Bruce Springsteen, and a half-dozen other significant white male rockers, but this is not why he is so little known in the U.S. (I don’t think that Post, one of his early records, ever came out Stateside. Please let me know in the comments if I’m wrong.) Maybe his eclectic arrangements (Kelly seems to be a big fan of Sandinista!) and leanings toward literature (he named an album after a Raymond Carver story) have seemed forbidding to many. Yet there is nothing dense about Kelly, a Woody Guthrie fan who aspires to similar plainspokenness. His gestures and observations are tiny, unexpected, perfect motions.
Post is Kelly’s third album. He normally records with a band, once called the Messengers. Before then its members answered to the Dots and the Coloured Girls, but Post is a solo acoustic album that emphasizes the dark side of life. Before you start yelling Nebraska, know that the pessimism here is more specific than the broad-minded Springsteen would ever allow. (Also know that Kelly gives himself the marvelous luxury of occasional accompaniment, however spare.) Many of the songs here are lyrically grounded in the first stages of recovery from drug addiction. “White Train” and “Blues for Skip” are explicitly about heroin, and all sorts of junk—drugs and otherwise—thwart the soft vocalist throughout the record.
The soft singing is never intended as quiet comfort. The singer in “Adelaide” rethinks his childhood, all detail and foreboding (“Dad’s hands used to shake but I never knew he was dying/I was thirteen, I never dreamed he could fall”), and when he stumbles into the present as if it is a bad dream, he tosses off lines like “I own this town” to convince himself that someone is listening to him. In “Incident on South Dowling,” a junkie helplessly watches his lover overdose before him, and then he ponders the layout of the tiny apartment they shared. Precise observations, punctuated by tragedy.
The meanest song on Post is its truest. A self-satisfied rock-god-in-training sings “Look So Fine, Feel So Low,” the tale of an up-and-comer living off the kindness of an innocent (“She buys me things/She wants to take care of me/And all I gotta do is sing, sing, sing”) while a millimeter under the surface he detests her (“She’s so easy to impress/When she asks me dumb questions/All I gotta do is say ‘yes, yes, yes’”) for his predicament. Kelly’s character signs in a voice so drenched in derision he is oblivious to his inhumanity. The title lines are attempts to show remorse, but the kid is kidding. What the kid doesn’t know is that revealing himself ensures his eventual eviction. He looks so wise, but he’s really a fool. These deceptively complex characters are the folks Kelly wants to write about, and their multidimensional nature is part of why their stories don’t ring on radios from coast to coast. Kelly subsequently rerecorded rousing full-band versions of many of the songs on Post, and those takes are often exhilarating. They’re great performances. But on Post, they’re revelations.