Humming synthesizer and gentle piano envelope singer-songwriter Paul Kelly’s distinctive growl as he delivers the opening lines of Judith Wright’s poem Black Cockatoos: “Each certain kind of weather or of light has its own creatures.” Birds are the creatures showcased in Kelly’s latest project, a collaboration with pianist Anna Goldsworthy and her Seraphim Trio, composer James Ledger, and singer-songwriter Alice Keath, Thirteen Ways to Look at Birds, commissioned by the Adelaide Festival. The cycle sets bird-themed poetry by the likes of Judith Wright, W.B. Yeats, Thomas Hardy, Gwen Harwood and others.

Thirteen Ways to Look at BirdsAlice Keath, Anna Goldsworthy, Helen Ayres, Tim Nankervis, James Ledger and Paul Kelly in Thirteen Ways to Look at Birds. Photo © Shane Reid

Kelly worked with Ledger several years ago on Conversations with Ghosts, which saw the pair joined by musicians from the Australian National Academy of Music and Genevieve Lacey on recorders. Here the pair set a different tone, leaning away from the haunting, atmospheric haze of Ghosts and into a more plain-speaking folk-rock idiom. That said, Thirteen Ways to Look at Birds is a genre-blending collaboration and the sound world is at times one of contemporary classical music.

The setting of Thomas Hardy’s The Darkling Thrush, for instance, sees the strum of Kelly’s acoustic guitar join a crescendo of cello (Tim Nankervis) and violin (Helen Ayres), with Ledger on electric guitar and Keath joining Kelly on vocals, while W. B. Keats’s Leda and the Swan charts a more complex arc.

Keats’ poem retells a story from Greek mythology, depicting the rape of Leda by the god Zeus, who has transformed himself into a swan. Leda will later give birth to a child, who becomes Helen of Troy and whose abduction is at the centre of the Trojan War. “Yeats only needs 14 lines to cover this ground,” Kelly quips to the audience. Kelly and Ledger take their time, however, with tranquil – soon lush – piano setting an idyllic scene that soon becomes anxious with the addition of Ledger’s electric guitar. Kelly delivers Yeats’ poetry more spoken word than sung, the rhythms of the text pressing forward while soft vocals from Keath are underscored by her inexorable beating of an orchestral bass drum that drives the work’s war-like, ultimately apocalyptic, crescendo.

This is a fascinating cycle, but like Conversations with Ghosts, the shifts in musical styles don’t always sit completely easily. Likewise the changes in mood – numbers like Leda are quite dark, while others list toward the over-sentimental – are abrupt at times and some of the 13 numbers (14, including an encore setting Robert Adamson’s Eurydice and the Tawny Frogmouth) are more successful than others. A few muddy moments in the sound obscured the text in moments early on, but were swiftly cleared up on Saturday night.

But there are some great moments. Alice Keath, whose skills as a multi-instrumentalist are on show as she switches from banjo to autoharp, glockenspiel and more, takes lead vocals for a setting of Thomas Hardy’s Proud Songsters, with Kelly singing backup underneath, while Keats Ode to a Nightingale – beloved of Kelly since his high school years – offers perhaps the richest and most complex harnessing of the forces available, in one of the longer explorations of words and music. A setting of Miroslav Holub’s The Fly had the strings buzzing furiously, while several instrumental numbers gave the band a chance to shine alone, Ledger giving his music freer rein to explore sonic landscapes.

Kelly’s vocals tend towards spoken word – this is not the Paul Kelly of Dumb Things – and he delivers them with obvious passion and energy, bringing a direct, folk sound to the pitched passages. He’s a genial host and his stage banter is warm and well-pitched – he almost whips up a patriotic frenzy from the audience when he expresses a preference for magpies over nightingales – and there is an environmental message, too, in his setting of A. D. Hope’s The Death of the Bird. The concert finishes on an upbeat note, with a folk-rock/country rendition of Denis Glover’s The Magpie and its delightful lyrics mimicking the bird’s warble.

Thirteen Ways to Look at Birds plays at City Recital Hall, Sydney, on June 1, and at Melbourne Recital Centre on June 14