Content warning: The following review contains discussion of suicide.
"Confessional" as a musical adjective was beaten into the ground by writers decades ago, but on her latest album Sarah Mary Chadwick digs it up and dances with its proverbial corpse. Me & Ennui Are Friends, Baby is the conclusion to a ramshackle trilogy of records about trauma and grief by the Melbourne via New Zealand singer-songwriter. The former two technically boast a grander scale – The Queen Who Stole The Sky (2019) was recorded live on Melbourne Town Hall's 147-year-old grand organ, while Please Daddy (2020) was Chadwick's first full-band outing – but her latest manages to be her most monumental statement of sorrow yet, featuring just piano and vocals.
The intimacy of Chadwick's new record, if it was ever in doubt, is signposted from the cover: a close-up of her crotch in tiny denim shorts (the first record since 2015's 9 Classic Tracks to feature a photo rather than one of her raunchy paintings). The closeness is also atmospherically audible – you can hear Chadwick's fingers lift off the piano keys, the stool beneath her creak, and her voice float in the studio air with a slight concert hall reverb. While her lyrics are transparent too, Chadwick doesn't approach the diaristic style of grief-concerned artists like Mount Eerie. She organises and contextualises trauma; sorts through it non-chronologically with brutal pathos.
...Ennui... builds up to Chadwick's attempt on her own life, following the end of a long-term relationship and the death of her father. The title track is its centrepiece; an account of that event. She doesn't sketch it as a parable or a mirror for others to see themselves – it's singularly carved into morbid stone with a date, Chadwick's date: "August 11, 2019". In the song, she doesn't call her mother ("...because I hate that bitch"), her father ("because the phone don't reach where he is"), but does a friend named Tim. The philosophy for laying out such bare truth? "Maybe I'll pour my soul into another few songs/ The only time I feel real, the only time I don't feel wrong," Chadwick aches. The search for peace afterwards is personified: "Perhaps I'll meet Safety and we'll shake hands and he won't be a stranger".
...Ennui… is also a strangely romantic and humorous document. "Full Mood" croons through a Valentine's Day date where a bartender tries (unsuccessfully) to initiate a threesome. "At Your Leisure" reconstructs the power dynamic of a relationship that shifts in Chadwick's mind. Is she powerless, or is that a construct masking that she's getting what she wants?
The evolution of Chadwick's writing has been at the sacrifice of clear melody, her voice now switching between a talky-shout and an agonised howl. But it does have a sickly, addictive quality too, that makes you feel like nobody else sounds as honest as her. Chadwick winks at her habit of skipping a chorus on "Let's Go Home" ("I'm not one for repeating lyrics/ But I'll repeat every sickness I ever had baby"). It's what makes "Don't Like You Talking" jarring when it comes in with a double-tracked vocal and sweet, circular piano – it sounds like Father John Misty's ghost-written pop songs. Chadwick's verbose takedowns of toxic men ("Every Loser Needs A Mother", "I Was Much Better At Being Young Than You Are") are not dissimilar to Misty either, though she certainly never hides behind a persona.
Chadwick has spoken frequently about equating psychoanalysis to songwriting – "talking and working it out afterwards". It can be tempting to tar it all as raw autobiography because of that, particularly since ...Ennui… features some of Chadwick's most painfully vulnerable quatrains ever – but that would also bely the sincere craft of her songwriting. It's fantastical sadness, moulded from the putty of life.
Sarah Mary Chadwick's 'Me & Ennui Are Friends, Baby' is out now via Rice Is Nice Records and Bada Bing Records (US/EU).
Written by Josh Martin, a Melbourne-based freelance music and media writer with words in MTV Australia, NME, Junkee, Crikey, etc. Follow him on Twitter @joshmartjourn.