*** 1/2PAUL KELLY & THE MESSENGERS. "Under the Sun." A&M. To the list of songwriters who are equally at home in the first or third person, who are in command of a range of classic pop styles to be absorbed and contorted for their own ironic purposes, to the list that includes names like Costello and Hiatt--add Kelly, if you haven't already.
The Australian's second American release is yet another winning grab-bag of genres and characters, and proves that Kelly (who plays tonight at Club Lingerie) is a genuine Populist in the best sense: He cares enough about common people to write with unusual compassion but is detached enough an onlooker to be honest, which in many cases translates to just plain being sad.
The man who finds that everything about his ex-wife has changed except that she's still got the "Same Old Walk"; the overly giving woman whose "big heart's gonna break (her) little body"; the woman who reluctantly lets an abusive ex-husband come back "To Her Door"--these are all people we haven't met yet in songs, people we want to know more about than the scant few stanzas Kelly offers up.
The music rarely sounds as dashed as its characters' hopes; it's peppy stuff by and large, brimming over with brilliantly disguised American country influences. Alas, "Sun" seems to be missing the one sure-fire rock radio hit that would follow up the previous album's near-miss ("Darling It Hurts"). Too bad our little list has to remain such a secret.