Listening to Mark Whitfield’s choice of Laura Cantrell’s spellbinding ‘When The Roses Bloom Again’ for last week’s Chaingang, it’s hard not to think about the huge number of songs in Americana, like that one, which dig into the deep lode of the topic of life after death, and within that the hope that somehow there is a brighter place in the great big yonder where people will be happily reunited.
‘Meet Me In the Middle of The Air‘ by Paul Kelly addresses this question head-on, and with direct, moving inspiration from a fairly well-known book on the subject: the Bible. According to his memoir How To Make Gravy the song came about when Kelly took the words of Psalm 23 and fused it with another New Testament passage which has been “floating around for more than a hundred years in blues, gospels and spirituals”: “We who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”
Kelly is not known to be religiously minded and with notable exceptions (the marvellously scathing ‘God Told Me To’ which skewers fundamentalist self-righteousness with a vengeance, for example, or his recent Christmas covers album) over the decades, the subject has only occasionally been a direct inspiration for his music. And perhaps it’s precisely that apparent lack or low intensity of faith on his part that makes this particular statement of hope in the life beyond so powerful and accessible.
In his original recording in the 2005 album ‘Foggy Highway’, ‘Meet Me in the Middle of the Air’ was performed a cappella, too, and that simple format helps crank up the melancholy beauty of the song several notches. It’s not just Kelly’s version that captures that beauty, though. As a meditation on the heightened sense of displacement and other-worldliness produced by COVID-19, the version used as a soundtrack on Australian broadcaster ABC’s “7:30” program about Melbourne in the pandemic, its usually bustling streets and public buildings seemingly empty of life but still carrying a fragile thread of hope of life to come, could hardly be bettered.
Paul Kelly is a singer/songwriting treasure. I believe he sits on the same shelf with Townes and Dylan and Cohen. Recommend checking him out if you haven’t had chance.