Gossip (1987) ****
Originally a 24-track double LP in Australia, Paul Kelly's American debut was whittled down to a manageable 15 songs to fit on one 50 minute disc (allegedly the CD version adds a couple more to round up to 17 total, but I have the cassette, you see). Kelly reveals himself as an extraordinarily talented songwriter with a thin, limited voice, but the dry, conversational tone of his vocals suits the material; he has a knack for the intriguing narrative and telling detail, and would've made a fine short story writer if he'd chosen another career path. The effect is that of an Australian Graham Parker - tradition-drenched pop/rock with its feet firmly in the pubs but with a deeply literate heart. Kelly shows himself equally adept at paring himself down to an acoustic guitar and delivering a tender '50s style ballad, "Somebody's Forgetting Somebody (Somebody's Letting Somebody Down)" as he is flexing a bit of muscle on a Sandinista!-style Clash geopolitical rocker, "The Execution," a scathing character study of a mercenary that's worthy of Warren Zevon. He's capable of penning rousingly melodic jangle-pop jewels such as "Before the Old Man Died," and "Before Too Long," as well as reggae-tinged rock ( "Last Train to Heaven," which borrows a little too liberally from the Impressions' "People Get Ready") and sawdust blues ("Incident on South Dowling"), and even indulges in a bit of Elvis Costellp-esque wordplay in the racous, "Darling It Hurts" (Darlinghurst, the red light district where the narrator spies an ex-girlfriend walking the streets). The problem is that unlike Parker, Kelly does not have his own Rumour; his backing band are crisp and servicable professionals, but the music never truly catches fire or rises to the occasion of his songwriting. The record is cleanly and professionally performed and produced, but minimally; the focus is squarely on the songwriting, the music taking a backseat - as perhaps it should be, given Kelly's mastery of the craft. But I'm quibbling - this is an excellent record, 15 sterling examples of picture-perfect songcraft, that only lacks a little spark in the performance to elevate it to a true classic. As proudly Australian as Midnight Oil and as craftsmanlikely literate as the Go-Betweens.
P.S. They were originally Paul Kelly & the Coloured Girls (after the lyric in Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side") but the record company wisely convinced them to change their name before an overseas release.