Sarah Mary Chadwick – ‘Me & Ennui Are Friends, Baby’ review: songs close to the bone

The singer-songwriter confronts what it’s like to commit truth to song

Melbourne-via-Wellington songwriter Sarah Mary Chadwick has developed a cult following over seven studio albums for writing confessional, forthright songs that articulate loss, mental illness and heartache like few others. With a songwriting approach heavily shaped by psychoanalysis, Chadwick’s commitment to working through complex emotions and events with candour and a sly, self-deprecating wit has made her one of the country’s most distinctive artists.

Her new album, ‘Me & Ennui Are Friends, Baby’, is the final in a trilogy of records that began with 2019’s ‘The Queen Who Stole The Sky’ and continued with last year’s ‘Please Daddy’. On all three, Chadwick processes traumatic events: the deaths of her father and a close friend, and, on ‘Ennui’, the end of a long-term relationship and an attempt to take her own life.

Where Chadwick’s last two albums utilised grand organ and full-band arrangements respectively, ‘Ennui’ is a severely sparse record, with her vocals accompanied only by solo piano. The minimal instrumentation pulls Chadwick’s lyrics to the front, giving an added weight to their already hefty impact. When, on the album’s title track, Chadwick recounts a 2019 suicide attempt, lines like “I’m scared of dying / But that won’t stop me trying” ring out, unable to be ignored.

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Over the past decade, Chadwick has become the kind of songwriter who seems more focused on the words she sings and the feeling she communicates than on sonic experimentation or technical proficiency. That artistic approach characterises the stunningly immediate and intimate ‘Ennui’, which was recorded in one day with only a few takes per song, Chadwick singing and playing piano at the same time. On the slow-burning standout ‘Full Mood’, Chadwick’s voice is a soft croon that floats above languorous piano chords, sounding like it’s almost about to break. And earlier on the record, a minute into ‘That Feeling Like’, the singer wails with an intensity that’s jarring and powerful to behold. They both hit different, but God, do they both hit.

Chadwick has been open about using songwriting as a means of processing trauma, and on ‘Ennui’ that process is explicitly referenced on multiple occasions. On the droning ballad ‘At Your Leisure’, Chadwick asks, “Is it all for this song? And if it is, is that wrong?” Elsewhere on the album, she calls writing songs “the only time [she] feels real”.

This has been at the heart of Chadwick’s songwriting for some time now: the relationship between the life and the art, and the blurring of the two. With less ornamentation to fill the spaces surrounding each word, the gravity of that relationship becomes all the more significant. On ‘Ennui’, more so than her previous records, Chadwick appears to be actively confronting what it means to commit the truth to song while she’s doing it.

It might be tempting to think of songwriting as honest and direct as Chadwick’s as completely organic, words simply falling out onto the page. But that would be a mistake. Though it’s her most direct record in years, there are few moments on ‘Ennui’ that don’t feel considered. The quiet sense of resilience and hopefulness that underpins the album even at its most darkest points, for instance, feels like a deliberate choice – closing lines like “We can’t be together broken / But maybe one day we’ll be whole” (‘Always Falling’) acting as a form of self-actualisation for both songwriter and listener alike.

There’s merit in subtlety and abstraction, just like there’s merit in lush maximalism. But the world desperately needs songwriters who tell it straight and plainly, almost uncomfortably so, and Chadwick is one of the best we’ve got. The most powerful moments on ‘Me & Ennui Are Friends, Baby’ are those closest to the bone, and while the rawness of the material may be tough for some to face, for those it resonates with, it’s a salve – an outstretched hand between shared experience, an ode to the beautiful and aching task of staying alive.

Details

Sarah Mary Chadwick new album Me and Ennui Are Friends Baby
  • Release date: February 5
  • Record label: Rice Is Nice Records/Ba Da Bing Records
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