Robin Kelly likely approaches many, if not all, of his projects with the same deliberateness defining his latest album Shadowman. The sixth release from the New Zealand singer/songwriter/musician features a baker’s dozen worth of songs that never content themselves with being cookie-cutter roots music. He’s collected numerous accolades in his native land, but his name is spreading wider than ever and has helped him build important creative partnerships along the way.
Guitarist Nigel Gavin has worked with King Crimson’s Robert Fripp in the latter’s League of Crafty Guitarists, among other important gigs along the way, Kelly pairs himself with guest singer Sonia Wilson on a variety of Shadowman’s cuts, sometimes playing a greater or lesser role, but her part in the album’s success can’t be ignored. She doesn’t have an outsized presence during the opener “Sunrise”, but it matters. The contrast her voice achieves with Kelly’s light nasal tone helps further define the song’s character.
The delicacy of the songs is apparent from the start and grows more obvious as the album unfolds. “Good Morning, Captain Sir” is a lyrical and musical highlight that sounds like a strong breeze could undo everything. It’s magical without ever sounding pretentious or precious. Several roots music instrumental mainstays, such as accordion or mandolin, appear on the album and this is no exception, but those instruments rarely take precedence over the guitar.
The underlying jangle of the title track and the pedal steel rhapsodizing over the top gives it a distinctive signature few listeners will soon forget. Kelly’s playful singing never descends into self-parody, thankfully, and boasts enough of an idiosyncratic quality that it helps the already fine lyrics stand out even more. “So Close to the Edge” provides Shadowman with one of its more intense moments and the dramatics are honest. The fact that he achieves such an outcome with yet another low-key musical setting testifies to the artistry at his disposal. The foreboding growl of the song’s electric guitar is one of many high points.
“Our Last Valentine” is a mind-blowing duet. It would seem that putting together a male and female singer in a quasi-dialogue setting is played out by now, but Kelly and Wilson tackle this song as if they are the first. It has a slightly hypnotic effect on listeners. “It Settled With the Moon” is such a beguiling marriage of music and words that you may actually miss the lyrical quality. It’s a lovely bit of performed poetry; it wouldn’t work on the page, shorn of its music, but that’s no slight.
“Behind a Veil” is one of the album’s more poetic moments. It’s another duet, as well, with a stronger folk quality than anything resembling Americana. Some may hear the European side of his songwriting shining through, some may not. You can’t easily pigeonhole Kelly’s work because he’s a stylistic moving target while retaining an undeniable identity. The hushed intimacy of the album’s finale “Live Life Slow” provides Shadowman with a highly appropriate ending and reminds you of a leaf slowly wafting to the ground rather than something harder, more conclusive. It’s final evidence, as well, of the clear vision Robin Kelly has for this outstanding album.