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, 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 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.
“The Day John Sattler Broke His Jaw,” a song about a legendary Rabbitoh from the days when Souths ruled in which Keyes deftly manages to rail against a pet hate, the forced removal by governments of generations of battlers from Redfern away from their heartland to the outer suburbs of Sydney, is surely one of the saddest songs ever written.
“Kids Day” time-travels back to the Easter Show when it was at Sydney Showgrounds, a magical place where “the moon’s a magic lantern/on the city’s big black curtain/as your fingers slip into that lucky dip/the outcome’s never certain” and if you play your cards right you might just get your photo taken with wrestler Brute Bernard.
“Peter Cottonball” and “Matthew Talbot’s Blanket” are chilling sagas of, among many things, the ghastliness of homelessness whilst “Joe Strummer” and “Dale Buggins’ Dream” celebrate heroes who fly too high and crash to earth.
And “At The Speedway” is a Keyesian kind of love story about a couple of urban outlaws who take time out from crime (he keeps a ski mask and a sawn-down shotgun in the back of his ute) to enjoy the simple pleasures life has to offer. The words are borne along by hauntingly beautiful and memorable melodies and riffs and Keyes’ rich, world-weary voice. His vocals have a truth and beauty that can only come from one who’s lived the life he evokes, thought hard about it, been shaped by it, and written it all down.
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.
All songs written by Perry Keyes
Recorded by Grant Shanahan at Leisure Suit Studios, Spencer
Track 1 recorded by Michael Carpenter at Love Hz Studios, Sydney
All additional recordings at Love Hz
Mixed by Michael Carpenter at Love Hz Sydney
Mastered by Rick O’Neil at Turtlerock Studios, Sydney
Perry Keyes – lead vocals, guitars
Bek-Jean Stewart – drums, vocals, percussion
Edmond Kairouz – guitars, vocals
Earl Pinkerton – bass
John Gauci – piano, hammond organ
Grant Shanahan & Michael Carpenter