You already know the story. Irish parish priest Father Ray Kelly, 61, came to fame via a viral video that showed him singing at an Irish wedding. But the surprise of the video was his song choice, Leonard Cohen’s unforgettable hymn to faithlessness, “Hallelujah.”
The next surprise was that it was happening at all. Irish people don’t generally expect the priest who marries them to serenade them out the door. But there he was large as life on YouTube, his voice reaching a nasally crescendo that electrified millions of viewers around the world.
That was never going to be his last word, or indeed note. Recording offers began arriving in his inbox as the world’s producers got dizzy at the prospect of discovering this year’s Susan Boyle.
It’s taken almost a year from that “Hallelujah” debut for Kelly’s album, "Where I Belong," to reach the mall, but here it is at last, with a lovely cover photo featuring him standing at a gable wall surrounded by the picturesque drumlins of Co. Meath.
How do you follow the once in a lifetime success of “Hallelujah”? It turns out you might not be able to. "Where I Belong" is notably formulaic and to be honest, a bit dull.
The album opens with a self-penned track called “Together Forever (The Wedding Song).”
“Together forever you'll weather the good times and bad. Together forever, in life, in love,” he sings.
Together forever weather never ever. This is not the most inspired lyric writing, I began to hear myself think.
But before you know it here come the uilleann pipes seemingly borrowed from Titanic to suggest that this is nonetheless a meaningful and profound track. And if you still don’t get the point here’s a big booming orchestra and a heavenly choir.
It’s the aural equivalent of anesthetic really. Before you can say “Oh, that’s relaxing,” along comes “Hallelujah” again (it’s the second track on the album) to deliver the sucker punch.
Surprisingly, Kelly’s rendition of “Galway Bay” sounds at once epic and tiny, a bit like watching "Lord of the Rings" through the wrong end of a telescope. It ambles along inoffensively enough until once again the god-awful orchestration kicks back in.
Where subtlety might do we have explosions instead, even a church bell being rung by the song’s end. I’m surprised they left out the firing squad.
Just when I thought I could take no more of this over produced album, Kelly launches into his version of REM’s “Everybody Hurts.” It never occurred to me you could introduce a tin whistle into this song without doing it an injury, but Kelly manages to.
Unfortunately before the simple human message of the lyrics can really make themselves heard and felt, along comes that epic production for another massive orchestral explosion.
I’ll admit it, “Everybody Hurts” actually works well for one minute, when the violins stop and the drums are silent and Kelly is allowed to just sing almost unaccompanied. For about five blissful seconds you can hear his voice and all the warmth that made him famous.
It doesn’t last, though. Boom goes the conductor. Boom goes the orchestra. Boom go the drums. Perhaps the musicians were paid by the note?
By the fifth track you’re hoping Kelly might kick it up a notch with a rock-out track to add some variety. Instead, though, there’s just more uilleann pipes and blaring orchestration.
And on it goes for 12 tracks. Boom goes the orchestra, boom go the drums.
Tracks include familiar Irish standards like “Danny Boy” and famous spirituals like “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art.”
But by the 12th go-round you realize that every track has followed the same basic recipe. Start slow and then build and build until the orchestra deafens you.
It’s a shame. Kelly’s talent is not best served by this let’s-go-Hollywood impulse. What made him a star was his interesting combination of simplicity and surprise, two qualities sorely missing here.
A little quiet reflection would have made all the difference to the album and the variety. As it stands one song follows the track carved by its predecessor with not much variety to add.
Let’s hope in the follow up album that lesson is learned.