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Messages To God solidifies Sarah Mary Chadwick as one of our most powerful songwriters

"Messages To God"

Release date: 15 September 2023
Sarah Mary Chadwick Messages To God cover
12 September 2023, 09:00 Written by Tom Williams

No one captures grief quite like Sarah Mary Chadwick.

Her lyricism takes the idea of confessional songwriting to new, staggeringly vulnerable heights, and her soaring, cracking voice speaks to the terrifying intensity of the human experience.

Many of Chadwick’s best and most recognizable songs speak to life at its bleakest – be it her plea for life to end on “When Will Death Come” or the chronicle of her own suicide attempt on “Me and Ennui Are Friends, Baby”. Messages To God certainly has no shortage of such moments. “I’m always here and I’m always scared”, admits Chadwick on closer “Looked Just Like Jesus”, while on “Someone Else’s Baby” she paints an unforgiving self-portrait (“I’m just the sun that never shines / A mountain no one wants to climb”).

The album’s best downcast anthems arrive via the singles “Shitty Town” and “Only Bad Memories Last”. The latter, a ballad, depicts a freefall into despair, as Chadwick gives up hope of arising “to everywhere I used to dream of” and plainly admits, “I hate the way I think / It’s always bruising and battering”. The former, a cathartic barroom rant, captures frustration like lightning in a bottle. Beginning with an understated, repeating piano line and flute accompaniment, the song sees Chadwick sing of depression bordering on dissociation (“I watch through a window at my life”) and list that which plagues her (a “shitty town”, “shitty people” and “my shitty folks”, among them).

As the song progresses and builds, listlessness and disappointment evolve into a more visceral sense of anger and self-destruction (“All the broken faces scattered round like discarded jigsaw bits / Thrown in a tantrum ‘cause I couldn’t force them all to fit”). As the song reaches its finale, a sense of righteousness underlines Chadwick’s words as she asks, “Yeah, I know I’m angry / Why aren’t you?”. “Shitty Town”, then, suggests that despair in the face of the world as we know it, isn’t a personal failing, but the natural response of any rational and empathetic person.

But whereas other artists would become selfish and nihilistic in the face of such despair, a spirit of empathy underpins even the most despondent Chadwick songs. Such has been evident long before Messages To God – Chadwick, most poignantly, ended 2020’s harrowing “When Will Death Come”, with the message, “And if you feel the same as me, I pity you now / In it forever / But I guess, we’re in this together”. But even by the usual open-hearted standards of Chadwick, Messages To God stands out as being a particularly compassionate offering.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on opener “Don’t Tell Me I’m A Good Friend” – a dramatic piano ballad assisted by swirls of flute and Wurlitzer that add an unmistakable air of unease to the song. “...Good Friend” is a lifeline to someone at rock bottom delivered by someone who’s been there before. The song chronicles the aftermath of a friend’s suicide attempt while Chadwick attempts to help them “through it”. In the hands of a less talented and more privileged artist, the song’s sympathetic message could register as insincere or condescending, but Chadwick’s initial reaction to the suicide attempt (“I didn’t even need to ask him why”), confirms that we are dealing with a singer uniquely attuned to the very darkest realities of the human experience.

In one of “Good Friends”’s most poignant moments, Chadwicks admits her love for her friend won’t wain if they eventually do end their life (“Well I will still love you if one day you break and bow down”), but not before attempting to offer solace (“Sometimes it’s just that the beauty is scattered around”). Ultimately, moments like this solidify Messages To God as Chadwick’s most hopeful LP yet – among the harrowing wreckages of grief lay a roadmap to recovery.

Case in point: “Drinkin’ On A Tuesday”. Chadwick described this single as akin to “the interior of a drunk’s mind”, where “everything is bright and tragic and huge and dark and silent and everybody is new and bright. And all your jokes always land, every single one.” The single, like many Chadwick songs before it, is a perceptive meditation on alcohol – a substance that is alternately a source of hope and deepening despair in Chadwick’s music. But it’s also a testament to the small joys that get us through life. “You’ve got to have a hand to hold / A song that will bring you to your knees”, Chadwick advises. Much of the Melbourne-based musician’s songs focus on life’s biggest and most unanswerable questions, but on “Drinkin’ on a Tuesday”, she creates an ode to the small joys that make life worth living.

Though this year has seen a number of musical highlights, 2023 stands out to me as a year that lacks the bounty of rich, evocative singer-songwriter albums that the last few previous years have enjoyed. Messages To God is an exception – a mighty impactful portrait of grief, recovery and vulnerability. Alternately bruising, funny and thought-provoking, it is a testament to one of the 21st century’s most powerful songwriters. Like the greats who surely influenced her music – Elliott Smith, Jason Molina and Karen Dalton, among them – Chadwick speaks to the harshest realities of living as a sensitive and empathetic person dealt more tragedy than they had expected in their life. But while those artists were ultimately struck down by the cruelty of this world, Chadwick has created anthems for the bruised and beaten among us who have survived this world against the odds and are determined to keep on doing so.

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