Paul Kelly is an Australian institution.
No other modern musician has managed to both reflect and alter the tastes of our nation. He doesn’t just show us how our country is — sad; uncertain of itself; obsessed with minutiae — but how it can be. Kelly’s not just a mirror. He’s a finger pointing forward.
There’s a reason, after all, that he’s remained important to a swathe of generations. While his colleagues have been relegated to the dustbin of musical history, Kelly has remained as urgent and as cutting edge as ever — perhaps a strange thing to say about a man best-known for singing a song constructed around a gravy recipe.
He’s a meme. He’s a trendsetter. He’s a Shakespeare-obsessed balladeer. And he’s one of the best of us.
Here then, is every single Paul Kelly song, ranked from worst to best.
Disclaimer: We have dug as deep as we possibly can into the Kelly back catalogue in an attempt to find every song he’s released, but we reserve the right to say, “whoops, our bad” if we missed an obscure B-side somewhere.
#270. ‘Billy Baxter’
Paul Kelly does reggae. Unfortunately.
#269. ‘Satisfy Your Woman’
What is going on here Paul.
#268. ‘When The Girl’s Not Even English’
Some real wild titles in the forgotten corners of Kelly’s career.
#267. ‘Touchy Babe’
#266. ‘Little Boy Don’t Lose Your Balls’
Like I said. Wild.
#265. ‘Happy Slave’
Has not aged well.
#264. ‘Randwick Bells’
Balladry with all the edges sanded off.
#262. ‘Forbidden Street’
Paul, I love you, but you can’t just rhyme ‘street’ and ‘sweet’ like that. You just can’t.
#260. ‘Hard Knocks’
This is just ‘Tubthumping.’ I’m serious.
#259. ‘Promise Not To Tell’
I like the Cagney reference, though.
#258. ‘White Train’
Apes Johnny Cash a little too hard.
#257. ‘I Don’t Remember a Thing’
A touch too ‘Accidently Kelly Street’.
#256. ‘Moon in the Bed’
Somewhere around the middle, it starts to sag.
#255. ‘Our Sunshine’
If you’re a bluegrass fan, I can imagine this is pure poetry. For the rest of us, it’s Kelly at his most baffling.
#254. ‘Darling It Hurts’
Pub rock drenched in molasses.
#253. ‘Standing On The Street Of Early Sorrows’
Kelly doesn’t always excel when he goes for uncomplicated kinds of sadness — subtle melancholy is his better beat, and this overzealous song proves it.
#252. ‘Madeleine’s Song’
#251. ‘Blues for Skip’
A whimper, not a bang.
#250. ‘South Of Germany’
Kelly’s barest attempt to take the Woody Guthrie formula and make it Australian. Doesn’t really work.
The start of a decades long obsession with Shakespeare — and a little underwhelming when compared to the places that Kelly would eventually go with the bard.
#248. ‘Last Train To Heaven’
Anybody in the world could have sung this song. And you can’t say that about a lot of Kelly.
#247. ‘Your Litter Sister (Is a Big Girl Now)’
#246. ‘I Hate To Watch You Loving Him’
#245. ‘Until Death Do Them Part’
Lacks some of the venom it needs to truly sing.
#244. ‘Somebody’s Forgetting Somebody (Somebody’s Letting Somebody Down)’
Ironically: pretty forgettable.
#243. ‘Clean This House’
#242. ‘Skidding Hearts’
A strange, not entirely successful metaphor that hurts an otherwise sturdy song.
#241. ‘Down On My Speedway’
The most Cold Chisel song that Paul Kelly ever wrote, and proof that Cold Chisel songs are best written by Cold Chisel.
#240. ‘You Can’t Take It With You’
Hamstrung by its production.
#239. ‘Right Outta My Head’
Not sold by any chorus that contains the line “I’m gonna fuck her right out of my head“, to be honest.
#238. ‘You Can Put Your Shoes Under My Bed’
A bad place to put shoes, in my opinion.
#237. ‘Don’t Stand So Close To The Window’
Paul did a lot of bossing about in the first half of his career.
#236. ‘Don’t Start Me Talking’
Like I said. More bossing. Let me live, Paul Kelly!
An attempt to do Bob Dylan at his most wordy that misses just as much as it hits. A glorious mess.
#234. ‘Pretty Place’
A prairie tune that never makes a good enough case for its own existence.
Like discovering something growing under the floorboards of your family home.
#232. ‘Anastasia Changes Her Mind’
Can’t really make me care about about a love affair when the person you’re describing is barely there.
#231. ‘You’re Still Picking The Same Sore’
#230. ‘Everybody Wants To Touch Me’
Also a bit gross!
#229. ‘Nothing On My Mind’
Just a touch too thin.
#228. ‘Firewood And Candles’
#227. ‘Black Swan’
Never really gets going.
#226. ‘Thank You’
A weird simulacrum of Kelly’s better hits; like the artist doing a cover of himself.
#225. ‘Sonnet 73’
#224. ‘King Of Fools’
Points go to the King Kong reference, but for the most part, this one slips in and out of your head before you’ve even registered that it’s there.
#223. ‘Taught By Experts’
What am I meant to do now that I’ve heard Paul Kelly do that bluegrass, ‘hup’ sound? Like, where is it meant to live in my brain?
#222. ‘Time And Tide’
A song that gets smaller by the end of each and every line.
#221. ‘Want You Back’
Kelly would do this brand of hopelessness much better, and very soon.
#220. ‘Love Is The Law’
Is this… Is this Paul Kelly doing hip hop?
#219. ‘Beggar On The Street Of Love’
#218. ‘Pouring Petrol On A Burning Man’
How are you meant to love someone who can’t love you back? What’s there to love?
#217. ‘Little Decisions’
Now we’re cooking with gas. Kelly in the Hank Williams mode, doing dusty songs of heartache. Pretty baller.
#216. ‘David Gower’
Another Paul Kelly cricket song. It’s okay!
#215. ‘Special Treatment’
Fiery and furious.
#214. ‘Crying Shame’
#213. ‘Finally Something Good’
A montage of good things in slow-motion.
A frenetic work of classical composition, as insistent as anything in Kelly’s pub-rock phase.
#211. ‘My True Love Hath My Heart’
Like sinking into a comfy leather armchair.
#210. ‘The Fly’
#209. ‘Hasn’t It Rained’
A chirpy bit of doo-wop, grounded in the faith and spirituality that has long guided Kelly’s work.
#208. ‘Someone New’
Another Kelly horny heartbreak song. Not as effective as his others.
#207. ‘I’ll Be Your Lover’
A rose pinched between two teeth.
#206. ‘Hummin’ To Myself’
A big old door, made out of varnished oak.
#205. ‘Stumbling Block’
Possibly the most batshit song of Paul Kelly’s bluegrass period — a mix of weird, spoken-word poetry and an anachronistic chorus. Not entirely successful, but kinda stunning in its ambition.
#204. ‘These Are The Days’
Like diner coffee: a little thin, too sweet, but hits the spot just fine.
#203. ‘Sonnet 138’
It’s just impossible to get over how strange it is to hear Kelly do Shakespeare — in the style of Tom Waits, no less.
#202. ‘Night After Night’
A beautiful song about pretending to be happier than you actually are.
#201. ‘Teach Me Tonight’
The promise of a good time set to bluegrass. Weird!
#200. ‘No You’
Goes on for about a chorus and a verse too long — but it’s sweet.
#199. ‘Young Lovers’
The last song you hear at the country fair, head pressed into the chest of your dance partner.
#198. ‘Song Of The Old Rake’
Direct and unfussy, like a training manual on how to write a Paul Kelly song.
#197. ‘Seeing Is Believing’
An early flash of Kelly’s brilliance, full of warmth and heart.
Direct and uncomplicated.
#195. ‘Invisible Me’
Pure, unabashed heartache.
#194. ‘Leah: The Sequel’
In which Kelly surveys his own discography, and gives one of his biggest tunes a coda.
#193. ‘Proud Songsters’
A fluttering glide of a song.
Draws an entire world, and then places you smack bang in the middle of it.
#191. ‘Curly Red’
More Guthrie homage, but full of the kind of sparkling wit and intelligence that is entirely Kelly’s own.
#190. ‘Gathering Storm’
This big, long unfurling mood piece. Like Prince gone rusted, or The Divine Comedy set to music and coated in dirt.
#189. ‘Let’s Fall Again’
Like a wide, sunburnt field.
#188. ‘The Gift That Keeps On Giving’
Light, reflected off a clean mirror.
#187. ‘Rising Moon’
Oddly urgent, full of the spiky howls of Kelly’s voice at its most pained.
#186. ‘Where Were You When I Needed You’
A dread prophecy, splitting apart with the weight of all that fire and brimstone.
Scratchy and beautiful, like an elegy tapped into the top of a tin box.
#184. ‘Rally Round The Drum’
A call to order.
#183. ‘Hard Times’
Thrillingly by-the-numbers. Like someone tried to strip out all the specifics from Paul Kelly, just to see what might get left behind.
#182. ‘She’s A Melody’
Takes a single simile and pushes it as far as it will possibly go, to the point of absolute destruction.
#181. ‘Your Lovin’ Is On My Mind’
A lullaby for grown-ups.
#180. ‘Little Wolf’
A fairy tale as retold by an old drunk in a beer froth-splattered pub.
#179. ‘Rock Out On The Sea’
Love poetry written by someone suffering through a spell of vertigo.
Strange and sad.
#177. ‘Down On The Jetty’
A mournful slice of the world, offered up by an artist who so clearly adores his audience.
#176. ‘Passed Over’
Kelly’s obsession with antiques can be hit and miss, but this song, which mires itself in Australian history and throwback melodies, is a handsome bit of work.
#175. ‘Don’t Let A Good Thing Go’
A throbbing promise that things do eventually get better.
#174. ‘Sonnet 18’
‘Sonnet 18’ gains from borrowing from Shakespeare’s most famous sonnet, and also from its simple, stripped-down production.
#173. ‘Somewhere In The City’
A freight train.
#172. ‘Morning Storm’
Kelly at his most uplifted and clear-eyed.
#171. ‘Love Letter’
A song Kelly wrote for his side project Professor Ratbaggy, ‘Love Letter’ is unfairly overlooked in his discography — it’s a sturdy ballad, full of heartache and red wine.
#170. ‘Sonnets 44 And 45’
The song that plays in your head while you’re trying to get to bed after a long day with a beloved.
#169. ‘Brand New Ways’
Sounds like a clean break.
#168. ‘Big Fine Girl’
A Raymond Carver short story, set to spare instrumentation, and held in place by one of Kelly’s most understated choruses.
#167. ‘To Be Good Takes A Long Time’
Dirty Three-inspired, lopsided chaos.
#166. ‘Shy Before You Lord’
A song delivered on one dropped knee.
#165. ‘A Bastard Like Me’
A particularly Kelly-esque attempt at reinvention, with the man casting himself as an all-time evil heel.
#164. ‘Sure Got Me’
A straight-up-and-down pop song — unabashed and plain.
#163. ‘Ode To A Nightingale’
Paul Kelly and John Keats, together at last.
#162. ‘Every Day My Mother’s Voice’
Written for the soundtrack of The Final Quarter, a documentary about the virulent racism that Adam Goodes faced throughout his career, this is a song that confronts the ugliness of Australia head-on, while finding resilience even in the pain. A new live version has just been released, which is more than worth your time.
#161. ‘Bound To Follow (Aisling Song)’
A fever dream of a song, about the way that the centre of reality can drop clean out.
#160. ‘I Don’t Know What I’d Do’
#159. ‘Glory Be To God’
This is a Bible verse, tattooed onto the back of a preacher’s sunburned neck.
#158. ‘Big Heart’
Kelly at his most direct, for better and for worse. Mostly better.
#157. ‘Before The Old Man Died’
#156. ‘Every Fucking City’
Still a shock to hear Kelly swear, to be honest.
#155. ‘What You Want’
A series of lethal, shining hooks, arranged to spell out lines of poetry.
#154. ‘My Man’s Got A Cold’
Possibly one of the strangest songs in the Kelly back catalogue, this song strips down a relationship solely to its ugly parts, as a vindictive lover recounts the flu that her partner is suffering through. Weird, and unpredictably horny, and really rather good?
#153. ‘Sonnet 60’
Human bodies, grown out of flowers.
#152. ‘I Smell Trouble’
Kelly rarely goes in for doom, but this is the song that sees him at his most troubled and agitated, pacing small circles in his backyard and predicting a collection of apocalypses, both personal and political.
#151. ‘You Broke A Beautiful Thing’
A hymnal, written from the point of view of the patron saint of rejection.
#150. ‘Nothing But A Dream’
#149. ‘The Magpies’
Distinctly Australian, while also indebted to a whole host of European musical traditions. New and old, at exactly the same time.
#148. ‘Heavy Thing’
A burnt-out car sitting by the side of an abandoned road.
#147. ‘Gutless Wonder’
Never piss off Paul Kelly, is what I’m learning here.
#146. ‘Shane Warne’
#145. ‘Please Send Me’
#144. Rocking Institution
About halfway through, this song splinters itself into absolute pieces, and it is artful to watch.
#143. ‘Hope Is The Thing With Feathers’
Emily Dickinson’s most famous poem resists straight translation, which is why it’s good that Kelly approaches the verse sideways with this musical version, making it stranger and subtler.
Why are there quite so many sexy songs on Wanted Man? What was going on for Paul that year?
#141. ‘Can’t Help You Now’
Kelly’s anger reduces everything to its most simple, basic form, here — it’s as clean as a prayer, as jagged as a joke scrawled on a toilet door.
#140. ‘Beat Of Your Heart’
Threatens to collapse completely under its own weight for the first minute, but eventually finds itself. Lopsided, but catchy.
#139. ‘I Wish I Was A Train’
Follow your dreams, Paul!
#138. ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’
A song locked in a briefcase and then thrown off the edge of a cliff. Like, in a good way.
#137. ‘Forty Miles to Saturday Night’
The closest that Kelly ever came to writing a hangout song.
#136. ‘Righteous Woman’
The first song on The Merri Soul Sessions to be sung by Kelly, ‘Righteous Woman’ is a paean to female desire, dropped right in the middle of a record dominated by the female voice. Strange and aching.
#135. ‘When We’re Both Old And Mad’
A warped rocking chair, left out in the rain.
#134. ‘With The One I Love’
#133. ‘Black Cockatoos’
An alleyway, caked in rain, in the middle of the night.
#132. ‘Summer Rain’
Kelly at his most contemplative. A song that demands isolation — from the world; from your own thoughts. Just sequester yourself away, and let it happen to you.
#131. ‘Alive And Well’
An entire statement of self.
#130. ‘Hey Boys’
#129. ‘You’re So Fine’
Treacle stirred into a hot bowl of porridge.
#128. ‘Don’t Explain’
In which Kelly tries to go back to his pub-rock roots, and recapture the past. Also, about as melancholic as that exercise sounds.
#127. ‘Smells Like Rain’
Possibly Kelly’s most elliptical track. A ballad that comes at you sideways.
#126. ‘Forty-Eight Angels’
A sweet-as-sugar Christmas Carol of a song.
#125. ‘The Windhover’
One of Kelly’s darkest songs, because of its vagueness, not in despite of it. Like two hands reaching out into the dark, striking nothing.
#124. ‘The River Song’
It truly takes someone with Kelly’s skills to create a compelling and beautiful song out of a simple and direct description of the events of one single evening.
#123. ‘Just About To Break’
Maybe the most tragic, pathetic song in the entire Paul Kelly back catalogue.
#122. ‘Little Bit O’ Sugar’
A haunted song, full of ghosts and pain.
#121. ‘You Can’t Take It With You’
The banjo duel from Deliverance. But like, way sadder.
#120. ‘I Close My Eyes And Think of You’
Dylan pastiche. Good Dylan pastiche, though.
#119. ‘The Darkling Thrush’
#118. ‘Keep On Driving’
Given how perfectly suited his songs are for driving, it’s surprising that Kelly hasn’t written many songs about road trips — save this one, a gentle bop about heading out for the country with your mates.
#117. ‘When A Woman Loves A Man’
Fairly binary — in more ways than one — but still, extremely effective, in its way.
#116. ‘She’s Rare’
Maybe the prototypical Paul Kelly song. So: basic, but enjoyable.
#115. ‘Cold As Canada’
The story of a relationship in the process of going cold, and freezing up. That harmonica solo cuts like a dagger.
Kelly’s most nuanced song, a mess of conflicting tones and feelings that doesn’t so much end as it does collapse in on itself.
#113. ‘The Foggy Fields Of France’
Kelly really has a thing for fog, hey?
#112. ‘The Trees’
A forest glimpsed at daybreak.
#111. ‘Keep On Coming Back For More’
With its complex production and poppy chorus, this barely feels like a Kelly song at all — but it really works, brimming with light and energy.
#110. ‘Seagulls Of Seattle’
Unpretentious and clean.
#109. ‘Little Aches And Pains’
Kelly loves to chronicle the body, and this song, which sees the fallout from a love affair translated into a series of physical aches that get smaller as time goes on, might be his most successful attempt at making love something that is felt rather than thought.
#108. ‘Leda And The Swan’
#107. ‘Saturday Night To Sunday Morning’
More Kelly songs about sex! Just for you! As a treat!
A dustbowl with a melody plonked right in the centre of it.
#105. ‘Roll On Summer’
The sound of Kelly lying on his back in a field, and singing every last thing he can see.
#104. ‘Maralinga (Rainy Land)’
Like a cool change on a Summer day.
#103. ‘Know Your Friends’
Paul Kelly: our most honest and direct chronicler of what mateship actually means. Sad, torn-up, and beautiful.
#102. ‘We’ve Started A Fire’
Tell you what, Paul Kelly sure knows what to do with a harmonica.
#101. ‘A Barred Owl’
#100. ‘Don’t Harm The Messenger’
Geddit? Cause his band was called The Messengers! Also, this song goddamn slaps.
Crisis in slow-motion.
#98. ‘Ball And Chain’
To paraphrase Voltaire, if there wasn’t a Paul Kelly song called ‘Ball And Chain’, it would be necessary to invent one.
#97. ‘Barn Owl’
Kelly trying to fold his bluegrass phase in on his minimalist one. Shockingly effective.
#96. ‘Keep It To Yourself’
Beer-blanched, cigarette-stained beauty.
#95. ‘Please Leave Your Light On’
An attempt at early Tom Waits-style balladry, ‘Please Leave Your Light On’ reduces a relationship to these bare, broken phrases about “crawling in the dirt” and begging for forgiveness. Heartbreaking.
#94. ‘Other People’s Houses’
A whole novel, compressed down into a six-minute long pop song.
#93. ‘Maybe This Time For Sure’
#92. ‘Sleep Australia Sleep’
A lullaby for a country that refuses to stop hurting itself.
#91. ‘The Death Of The Bird’
“For every bird there is this last migration.”
#90. ‘I Was Hoping You’d Say That’
#89. ‘Sweetest Thing’
Bluegrass Kelly meets pop-rock Kelly. More effective than it probably should be.
#88. ‘The Ballad Of Queenie And Rover’
The story of Indigenous artists Queenie McKenzie and Rover Thomas, ‘The Ballad of Queenie and Rover’ mixes the political with the personal to charming and powerful effect. It’s about love — like all Kelly songs are — but about the things that love can mean, and can do.
#87. ‘Sometimes My Baby’
A song about absence and loss, set to some of the prettiest, most gentle music that Kelly would ever write.
#86. ‘None Of Your Business Now’
#85. ‘God’s Grandeur’
A singer-songwriter listing all of the things for which he is thankful.
Kelly and Sylvia Plath might not seem like the most obvious collaborators, but here the former sets a poem by the latter to music, creating something delicate and eerie. Shouldn’t succeed, but somehow does.
#83. ‘Tease Me’
Never thought you’d hear a Paul Kelly song with a string of grunts carrying the melody, hey?
#82. ‘I’ve Been A Fool’
Featuring a guitar solo that feels like ten miles of bad road.
#81. ‘Meet Me In The Middle of the Air’
The image of the shepherd is key to the Kelly universe — a hard-working, lonely soul with strong connections to the Bible and faith. And here, that image is laid out in striking detail, backed by haunted, cooed melodies.
#80. ‘Same Old Walk’
Fast, brutal, beautiful.
Kelly at his most playful, finding great delight in pulling all of his toys out of their box.
#78. ‘For The Ages’
In which Kelly thanks himself for being born at the same time as his beloved. Unbearably romantic.
#77. ‘Just Like Animals’
This is another Paul Kelly song about sex, so your enjoyment of it will be entirely dependent on how much you want to hear Paul Kelly singing about sex.
#76. ‘God’s Hotel’
Nick Cave and Paul Kelly, together at last! A better pairing than nuts and gum, but not better than say, chocolate and peanut butter.
#75. ‘Charlie Owen’s Slide Guitar’
An ode to one of the most extraordinary entities in the world — the things that Charlie Owen can do to a guitar.
Only Paul Kelly could sing a whole song about cross-city transit and somehow make it the most moving thing in the entire world.
#73. ‘Cities of Texas’
A white plaster poem.
#72. ‘Before Too Long’
#71. ‘Ghost Town’
Sadly not a Paul Kelly cover of the song by The Specials. Still. Pretty good!
#70. ‘She Answers The Sun (Lazy Bones)’
Paul Kelly and a double bass = match made in heaven.
#69. ‘Sydney From A 727’
Interstate airplane travel never sounded so romantic.
#68. ‘Song From The Sixteenth Floor’
A song that echos in your for days.
#67. ‘Gonna Be Good’
Another Kelly song about trying to make something of yourself during trying times.
“Yeah you gotta have a thousand eyes/To keep from going under“. Spare, gutsick poetry.
#65. ‘Blue Stranger’
As old-school as Kelly has ever gotten. Like something dredged out of the past.
#64. ‘Give In To My Love’
A collapsing building.
#63. ‘Fall Guy’
Kelly does self-deprecation with more humour, light and life than any other Australian musician, save for maybe Courtney Barnett.
#62. ‘Letter In The Rain’
So many Paul Kelly songs are about glory, but this is the song that most seeks it out, locating transcendence in everything from the breaking dawn to dew on leaves.
#61. ‘Extra Mile’
You can see the whole world from here.
#60. ‘Feelings Of Grief’
‘Atmospheric’ isn’t necessarily the word you’d always associate with Kelly, but here he trades his usual literalism with strange, esoteric melodies and some of the vaguest poetry of his career.
#59. ‘Oldest Story In The Book’
Kelly goes traditional, stripping his songwriting down to its barest, most essential elements.
#58. ‘Look So Fine, Feel So Low’
That title could be Kelly’s mission statement…
#57. ‘The Way Love Used To Be’
… And so could this one.
Kelly does Springsteen. It’s fun!
#55. ‘The Lion And The Lamb’
A Biblical verse, set to a chugging, solid melody. Wild that a song this direct and simple was co-written by five different musicians.
#54. ‘Smoke Under the Bridge’
Kelly’s always loved ending his albums with a shot of pure, unvarnished heartbreak. This might be the most heartbreaking one.
#53. ‘Little Kings’
Kelly’s falsetto feels like a bath tub of shattered glass.
#52. ‘My Way Is To You’
A long, sad list of Kelly’s self-perceived failures.
#51. ‘Whistling Bird’
A hoedown. But, like about depression.
#50. ‘I’m On Your Side’
Heartfelt and beautiful.
#49. ‘Down to My Soul’
Kelly’s relationship with faith is complicated, but this is the song that most clearly lays out how his spiritual universe works — a hymn to beauty, love, faith and kindness.
One long, rattling jam session.
#47. ‘Take Your Time’
#46. ‘Difficult Woman’
A spaghetti western theme song left to cool on a windowsill.
#45. ‘Love Never Runs On Time’
Ancient and beautiful.
#44. ‘Beautiful Feeling’
Possibly Kelly’s most impressive guitar solo.
#43. ‘I’ll Forgive But I Won’t Forget’
The rare “angry Paul Kelly.” Crawls on all fours.
#42. ‘I Can’t Believe We Were Married’
#41. ‘New Found Year’
A song about finding yourself, to your great surprise, genuinely happy.
#40. ‘Sweet Guy’
Impossibly ambitious — an attempt to tell the story of an abusive love affair — and more proof that Kelly can smuggle pretty much anything into a pop song.
#39. ‘It’s All Downhill From Here’
#38. ‘Incident On South Dowling’
The start of something very special in Kelly’s career; a new kind of clarity and intention that he’d never shown before. Beauty.
One of the most successful iterations of Kelly’s rock personas, a straight-up-and-down belter that also happens to hold more emotional nuance than most musicians cover in their entire career.
#36. ‘Lenny (To Live Is to Burn)’
What’s better than this: just guys being dudes.
#35. ‘I Won’t Be Your Dog Anymore’
Heartworn and ragged.
#34. ‘Won’t You Come Around?’
One long, bubbling crescendo.
#33. ‘Would You Be My Friend’
This song gets even sweeter if you imagine Paul Kelly standing at your door, surrounded by pouring rain, singing it to you.
#32. ‘Midnight Rain’
One long list of the things that Paul Kelly hates himself for (again).
#31. ‘Words And Music’
That introduction: an entire avalanche, dropping down precisely onto your head.
“Blowing on his blue hands” — Kelly at his most assonant, spare and truthful.
Frugal and beautiful.
#28. ‘I Wasted Time’
Cribs from the eternal sadboi Hamlet to craft the eternal sadboi anthem. “Girl you shoulda seen me in my prime/I see old friends at funerals now and then.”
#27. ‘I Had Forgotten You’
Bitter as a pill.
#26. ‘Leaps And Bounds’
There’s no human being in the entire world who can’t be won over to Kelly by those first 20 seconds.
#25. ‘Stories of Me’
An entire way of living, transformed into song.
#24. ‘Under the Sun’
A thousand miles wide.
#23. ‘Most Wanted Man in the World’
A slow waltz.
A handful of crushed-up diamonds.
Paul Kelly’s voice has never ached like this before.
#20. ‘When I First Met Your Ma’
There might be no other Australian musician who exudes empathy in the way that Paul Kelly does, particularly on this song. Thrums with a love for other people. All of them.
A musical apology. A whole person laid bare. Just unbeatable.
#18. ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’
Another song born of Kelly’s obsession with verse, ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’ matches a Dylan Thomas poem with one of his most sprightly melodies. Odd, but wonderfully so.
#17. ‘Stolen Apples Taste The Sweetest’
Saint Augustine is one of Kelly’s heroes, and here the debt that he owes the theologian is at its clearest, as he crafts a song of faith and devotion off the back of one of the key moments from Augustine’s Confessions.
#16. ‘Change Your Mind’
Slowly builds itself to pure, existential heartbreak. Like the end of the world.
#15. ‘With Animals’
Kelly has often sung about his hermit-like nature; about his rejection of the world of humans. Here, that mercurial aspect is explained through a love of the animal kingdom, and Kelly’s desire to sink into a world without words. Charming.
#14. ‘Winter Coat’
An entire relationship, reduced to one tiny, totally inconsequential detail.
#13. ‘If I Could Start Today Again’
A compression of all of Kelly’s interests: history, poetry, religion, and faith. Like a roadmap to his entire world.
#12. ‘Everything’s Turning To White’
Only Paul Kelly would take one of the greatest short stories ever written — Raymond Carver’s ‘So Much Water, So Close To Home’ — and turn it into a paean to forgiveness and hope. A work of lopsided genius.
#11. ‘From St Kilda To Kings Cross’
A song with its arms wide, wide open.
Angular, beautiful, mean, it’s Kelly shaving down his talents to a fine point. He’s never sounded quite as vindictive as he does here, his voice cartwheeling all over the place, turning on itself. Truly a work of vicious, madcap art.
#9. ‘God Told Me To’
Kelly goes alt-rock, combining the rantings of a Travis Bickle-type with reverb-saturated guitars. There’s a reason Kelly never returned to this style again — it’s not exactly in his wheelhouse — but as a one-off curio, it is surprisingly effective and mean. Like a bit of metal, sharpened to a point, and shoved into the small of your back when you’re least expecting it.
#8. ‘You’re 39, You’re Beautiful And You’re Mine’
“I don’t talk all that much,” Kelly sings, “about how I feel and such.” A paean not only to love, then, but also to the power of songwriting: of how it can provide a substitute, for when the spoken word won’t do. Just bliss.
#7. ‘They Thought I Was Asleep’
Kelly’s curiosity makes him a natural when it comes to writing from the perspective of children. ‘They Thought I Was Asleep’, a song about catching a glimpse of the adult world when you are still an innocent, ripples with that curiosity, as the man reflects tragically on the moment that he discovered what was going on behind the drawn curtains of his parent’s marriage.
#6. ‘Deeper Water’
Kelly’s element has always been water — what else for a man with a voice like a creek bed in the summertime? On this elegiac, slightly tragic song, he sinks himself back into the past.
And he encourages his listeners to sink themselves into it too, becoming one with an entire body of work, and an entire way of understanding the world.
#5. ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’
Kelly’s not always a politically-minded singer-songwriter; his music examines very basic human relations, not the things that happen when we get together and start legislating each other.
Indeed, ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’, the closest he ever came to writing an anthem, Kelly retains that macro-level view. It’s a song about a movement, but it’s also a song about people — about the ways that we blossom and change. It’s Kelly and co-writer Kev Carmody, reducing an entire movement to one astonishing, understated sentiment.
#4. ‘Life Is Fine’
Kelly’s never been one for self-mythologising, even in interviews or on record. In both cases, he keeps the listener at something like arm’s distance, taking the Bob Dylan route of appearing like an enigmatic and slightly alien poet.
But ‘Life is Fine’ bucks that trend. In this song, one of our country’s most accomplished and talented musicians looks back over his entire career, and considers his impact on the world around him and the people that he loves. Magisterial.
#3. ‘How To Make Gravy’
Whatever crime Joe committed doesn’t change the spare, elegant poetry of this song — an off-kilter piece of pure genius, melancholy and uplifting in equal measure.
After all, pretty much every song that Paul Kelly ever wrote is about the same thing — how to care for other people — and this is the song that makes that explicit. It’s a recipe for gravy, of course. But it’s also a recipe for making sure that your loved ones are safe.
There’s no songwriter who could compress an entire life, a family dynamic, and a way of thinking about one another, into a song this compact and elegant. Let alone sneak a pretty damn unbeatable recipe for gravy in the middle, on top of everything else.
#2. ‘Dumb Things’
Kelly’s not exactly known for his choruses — the man’s a storyteller, first and foremost, and his songs are often complicated and nuanced rather than insistent and plain. That is, with the exception of ‘Dumb Things’. A bunch of cars pushed off the top of a skyscraper, it’s this big, impossibly rollicking thing, held in place by one of the catchiest choruses in the man’s back catalogue.
That’s not the only way the song breaks the mould, either. It’s also joyously ugly. So often, Kelly’s songs make even disrepair sound elegant — here, he doubles down on the grit and the dirt of the universe, making all of human existence seem like one long, painful bout of suffering without no clear end. What other Australian song is this visceral? This alive to the way that we hurt each other?
#1. ‘To Her Door’
‘To Her Door’ isn’t just the best Paul Kelly song; it’s also the most Paul Kelly song. Pretty much every phase of his career is represented here, from his days as a pub-rock titan, to his softer, quieter latter work.
There’s the sadness that’s become a Kelly staple, and there’s the humour and the light, too. And there’s the keen eye for detail — the ability to pick up on the tiny ways that we reveal ourselves, every single day, and to draw an entire relationship out of those miniature moments.
Few songs are this graceful; this elegant. The whole world exists in ‘To Her Door’.
Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Junkee. He tweets @Joseph_O_Earp.
Photo Credit: Cybele Malinowski