Any list of Australian music royalty will feature Paul Kelly somewhere near the top. Anyone who questions why the 61 year old singer-songwriter is held in such high esteem by audiences, critics, and his fellow musicians, would do well to listen to Seven Sonnets & A Song because therein lies the answer. For his 21st studio album, Kelly has looked to the pinnacle of English writing for his inspiration, with six of the seven sonnets of the album title, as well as the song, being drawn from the Collected Works of William Shakespeare (the seventh sonnet was penned by Sir Philip Sidney, Shakespeare’s contemporary). Seven Sonnets was released to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death.
It takes a special kind of audacity to take on Shakespeare, and it is all too easy to imagine how his words might be delivered rigidly or in a pompous manner, or even how the music might be overworked in an attempt to create a sense of gravitas in the music to match that which Shakespeare’s name evokes. Pressing play, it only takes a moment before any misgivings are dispelled as Sonnet 138 is delivered as spacious and airy jazz, and Sonnet 73 is perfectly paced. Kelly opens Sonnet 18 (the classic ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’) acapella, with the words almost feeling like a rallying cry, and the song is built in layers, with folk infused guitar providing an upbeat sound against which a string arrangement can play counterpoint with mournful tones. At no point does Sonnet 18 sound like anything other than a Paul Kelly song, so effectively has he adapted the original sonnet.
Vika Bull temporarily relieves Kelly of his vocal duties for My True Love Hath My Heart – the sonnet by Sidney – employing her warm vocal tones to wonderful effect, with her delivery of the pseudo-chorus (the repeated words “true love”) subtly blending styles and becoming almost transcendent. Shakespeare’s name isn’t likely to make one think of slide guitar or harmonica, but both a judiciously applied on the piano driven Sonnet 44 And 45, and the searing harmonica solo in the outro provides a surprisingly apt flourish. Sounds of water run underneath the strong rhythms, and subtle and atmospheric organ, of Sonnet 60 which sees Kelly deliver his layered vocals – spoken word and sung – with a rising intensity until the song becomes a dark and moody, yet never cacophonous, storm of instrumentation that wouldn’t be out of place being performed by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
The song of Seven Sonnets & A Song is O Mistress Mine (Clown’s Song From Twelfth Night), which sounds archetypally Kelly, with only the anachronistic elements of language to hint at the lyrics 17th century origins. That every track on Seven Sonnets & A Song sounds fresh and original, as well as being emotionally compelling, and immensely rewarding to listen (and re-listen) to, is testament to the skills Kelly has brought to bear on this album; skills that have been honed over 30+ years as a songwriter and performer. If anyone asks who is king of Australian music, you can confidently say Paul Kelly.