Any artist can evoke a place, a time. The trick to great songwriting is to make those times and places resonate in the hearts of people who’ve never been there or done that, and the gift of Perry Keyes is that he achieves this brilliantly in his heartbreaking ballads and gritty rock.
The world Keyes sings about is one of growing up in the Sydney neighbourhoods of Redfern and Waterloo, of embracing the working class culture that dominated the inner-city in those long-lost days, and of family (“I wanna lie in the arms of the ones that I love – for ever and ever”). Of being at one with the winners and losers lurking at the TAB, the local pub and greasy spoon, the rugby league, the speedway, the boxing. Of chancing your arm amid the tawdry but endlessly romantic neon glitter of the Easter Show. Of love and drugs, sleeping rough and risking being incarcerated for things you may or may not have done. Of busting a gut driving a cab or slaving in a factory from dawn to dark to pay the rent, maybe buy the new Clash record and a feed of beef and black bean on Friday night with your best girl.
On The Last Ghost Train Home (2007), his follow-up to 2005’s sublime and acclaimed debut album Meter, Keyes confirms his status as one of Australia’s – no, dammit, the world’s – finest singer-songwriters with a set of gloriously observed and constructed songs that have the power of the punch that broke John Sattler’s jaw and the deliciousness of a kiss in the river caves at Luna Park. The Last Ghost Train Home went on to be short listed for the Australian Music Prize and was named the ABC Radio National Album of the Year.
The writing on The Last Ghost Train Home, as with Meter, is inspired. Keyes’s scenes and rich gallery of characters are photograph-vivid and anointed with acutely-observed and brutally-honest detail that brings them roaring to life. His images and anecdotes, some poignant, others the stuff of nightmares, loom at you like sylphs and hellions from a ghost train gloom.
Once again, Keyes is backed by his band, Give My Love to Rose, featuring Edmond Kairouz on guitars and vocals, Earl Pinkerton on bass, and the extraordinarily talented Bek-Jean Stewart on drums and shimmering back-up vocals that tingle the spine.
When Meter was released, Perry Keyes was compared to Springsteen and Elvis Costello, influences he typically shies from but when pressed on certain days may not deny. On The Last Ghost Train Home he proves himself entirely his own man.
In 2010 Perry released Johnny Ray’s Downtown 16 tracks that, once again draw on Keyes’ local environment – the marginalised and often neglected and rapidly decaying inner-city areas of Sydney – for their inspiration. Songs about growing up, or trying to grow up in the face of an environment that often suggests that the mere thought of getting past your late adolescence is hoping for more than what’s actually on offer. Johnny Ray’s Downtown received an ARIA nomination.
Perry has two new albums in the pipeline. Sunnyholt is out now. Great Western Highway at a later date.
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