The poet Bob Dylan once said, “It’s doom alone that counts”. Paul Kelly and guitarist Charlie Owen have taken that to heart on Death’s Dateless Night, a rambling collection of songs for funerals and moments of grief.
Cheery stuff right? Mind you, the album of originals and covers is a lot more fun than its title or subject matter suggests.
Kelly eulogised Charlie Owen back in 1998 with the song Charlie Owen’s Slide Guitar in which he described the epiphany he had when first hearing the highly idiosyncratic riffing from the guitarist in question.
In that song Kelly talks about how he was “crawling, in need of inspiration” the night he first heard Charlie. That may be the case again.
Kelly’s dry patches in songwriting are filled with side trips like his dirty R&B-inflected Merri Soul Sessions last year or an EP of Shakespearean sonnets earlier this year. These holiday jobs replenish Kelly’s batteries.
The idea for the project was hatched on the way to a funeral and that sets the cast for the entire album.
Kelly and Owen will be touring the album nationally through November playing the next best thing to graveyards – a run of churches.
Recorded mostly live on stringed instruments and piano, Kelly has taken to heart Jean Cocteau’s epithet that style is “a very simple way of saying very complicated things”.
Kelly’s aspiration to simplicity came across as bare and stark on 1985’s Post but it now has a warm richness; particularly with the vocals.
For an album of funeral songs there are very few of them that actually address death, dying or the afterlife.
The dominant theme of the collection is actually flight – from Hank Williams Angel of Death to Townes Van Zandt’s To Live Is To Fly. On Pretty Bird Tree, LJ Hill’s sublime ode to the Namoi River, Kelly and Owen put you right into the middle of that dream.
The version of Leonard Cohen’s Bird on the Wire finds new melodies in this most covered of tunes. Elsewhere there are eagles and levitation.
Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor has similarly been around the block a few times, most recently with Gillian Welch. Charlie Owen shines, bringing an uplifting swing to the country blues.
The duo also stretch Cole Porter’s Don’t Fence Me In with playful rephrasing of the lyrics and some deft playing. They revisit and rearrange two Kelly originals Nukkanya and Meet Me in the Middle of the Air.
The latter draws on the Psalms but the former, written for the play Funerals and Circuses is a more nuanced story that links a personal parting with a larger change happening in the land and the use of an indigenous word as it does obviously references that wider story.
This recording of the song is more layered than the spikey, Dylan-esque earlier version and it shows how much Kelly has grown as a musician.
Watch Paul Kelly and Charlie Owen perform Hard Times:
But if the record isn’t about death, what is it about? The answer lies in Maurice Frawley’s Good Things. Frawley was a colleague, a comrade to both Kelly and Owen before his death in 2009.
His songs have a bittersweet quality; an acknowledgement of darkness and pain and a savouring of the good things.
Funerals are not really about the person who has gone before – they’re for the living.
Death’s Dateless Night is available now.