I had not read Raymond Carver's short story when I first heard this album so I didn't know what to expect when I heard the title. CD players were new, I was a member of the Columbia House CD club so I was going into debt buying compact discs. This one was an after-thought.
'Sweet Guy' had been on the radio during the fall of '89 and my college life was in full-bore disaster mode. Disaster like a roller-coaster ride, like the moment before you pull the rip-cord on your parachute, the knowledge that you've made some very dangerous choices and the chickens will either be very tasty or coming home to roost and roost fucking hard.
When they came home to roost, they burnt this album onto my psyche. I don't own another Paul Kelly song. I know every note of this album by heart. If you isolated any particular track I could sing it, bass, keyboard, vocals, drums, you name it.
I think I never bought any more music of his because I just couldn't handle another obsession. This is one of those albums that is sheer perfection soup to nuts. Songwriting, performance, production, packaging, perfection.
'You Can't Take It With You' opens the proceedings and it is a sweet pop rock concoction, just a reminder, just a small tap on the shoulder to let you know that you are GOING TO DIE SOMEDAY. The sing-along quality becomes somehow perverse. You are celebrating your own demise, accepting our universal fate by singing in the shower.
Next is 'Sweet Guy' and right away you are put off your guard. It is a rollicking desperate rocker told from the point of view of an abused woman who still can't get enough of her man. He beats her and she keeps coming back for more. She wonders 'what makes such a sweet guy turn so mean'. Now, this isn't uncharted territory, but Kelly sings about it as if HE IS THE WOMAN. This will be a recurring device throughout the collection of songs and it gives the whole work a strange fluid quality, much the way the omniscient narrator does.
He then leaps into sheer romantic territory, embodying a hard-working laborer who can forget all his troubles because he is 'The Most Wanted Man In The World'. The physical connection that he shares with his woman leaves him in wonder at the beauty of the world. From enabling violence to blissful connection, these two songs piggybacked let us know that the whole range of human connection is ripe for exploration.
Next up is 'I Had Forgotten You' and I just don't know how the fuck he does it. There is more melodrama and gossip packed into this song than in the entire 'Desperate Housewives' episode guide. Somehow in a 3 minute rock song that RHYMES, Paul Kelly tells us a story of a man who gets a letter from an old friend. A woman has asked after him. Until the letter arrived he had forgotten all about her. She has been the subject of a lot of talk in the town because she has recently married a man whose wife has just passed away. She had nursed the woman as she died and that connection led them to a romantic relationship. The reader of the letter is then flooded with memories of a long-ago time when he briefly dated the woman. He lays next to his own wife and can barely feel her there. It RHYMES, people.
'She's A Melody (Stupid Song)' follows this and it again takes the opposite approach. Instead of a sucker-punch from a long forgotten flame, this song puts us inside the heart of a man who CANNOT stop thinking about her. In the same way that we get stuck singing some hateful bit of a song, he cannot cease obsessing. To deliberately call to mind those snippets of musical Tourette's and then write a song that embodies that lyrically and musically so that you find yourself humming THIS (STUPID SONG) for days and days is a kind of power that leaves me in awe of Paul Kelly.
In 'South of Germany', Kelly once again becomes a woman. Only this time he is an old woman nearing the end of her life. She's had 7 children. She's led a good life with a good man. But as the end approaches she can't help but think back to an unspecified incident in the South of Germany. A soldier. A love affair. Things would have been so different.
Happy person haunted by memory as well as sad. Kelly seems to be showing us that there is no escape, no hallowed place, no respite from the vagaries of life and love. Even those lucky enough to find and keep a love are still trapped by the specter of what might have been.
'Careless' comes along and it might be the boyfriend from 'Sweet Guy' gone through some enormous transformation. Slowly he sings of having lost his tenderness, of wondering where his kindness went, of how he became so 'Careless'. Once again, the tenor of the song is so bittersweet and the music so gorgeous that to pair it with such hard-fought realization makes for a dagger of emotion.
He jumps back to romance with 'Moon In The Bed' which is a short erotic jolt in which the singer is so turned on by his love that he can only equate it to having a celestial visitor actually under the covers with him.
And just when you think you can relax and enjoy those carnal pleasures, Kelly follows it with a howl of a song called 'No You'. Here all story is stripped away and this narrator keeps waking up astonished to find he is alone, that there is 'No You'. Here the lilting melody is embodied in a searing guitar lick and a snap shot drum which feels like the first slice of cold air hitting you as you trudge to your car the morning after a terrible break-up. There is a hint of romance in the air but it is an after-effect, the image that stays burnt onto your retina once the lights get snapped off.
Here we come to the crown jewel of this perfect album. 'Everything's Turning To White' is Kelly's retelling of the Carver song which gives the album its title. This short story has been re-enacted in the Australian film 'Jindabyne', in 'Short Cuts' by Robert Altman, and probably other times as well.
The song is devastating. For the final time, Kelly becomes a female narrator. She sings a gentle country rock wailer and tells how her husband goes off fishing with his buddies. They find a dead body of a young girl upon arriving at their fishing spot. Instead of rushing to report the find, they move the body out of the way of their fishing and spend three days catching fish. They report it upon returning to civilization.
Something breaks inside the woman when she learns what her husband has done. Or hasn't done really. She feels a million miles away from him. She goes to the funeral and watches. She wonders why he had to go fish there when there was so much water so close to home. In her head, everything's turning to white.
Again, Kelly makes this shit RHYME. It is a lesson in story telling that any artist should pay attention to. There is no extra, the story happens and then ends. The words rhyme but the rhyming is not the point. The story is the point.
Two more songs follow the album but they feel more like bonus tracks to me, proof that life goes on after such atrocity, proof that even the worst of times are followed by other times. And that somehow is worst of all.
Looking back it seems like I knew there wasn't a parachute behind that rip chord. So why did I pull it anyway? Why?