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  • Genre:


  • Label:

    Kill Rock Stars

  • Reviewed:

    September 19, 2023

With flutes and instrumental flair, the New Zealand singer-songwriter adds restless drama to her steadfast, plainspoken reflections on pain and personal growth.

Here’s the annoying thing about creating anything: You have to reckon with a time lag. Pure feeling can never survive the time required to decide to register it, and then jot it down. So you have to invent the thought anew, render it writerly, symbolic, neat. New Zealand musician Sarah Mary Chadwick, whose work has always privileged immediacy and primacy, brings pause and contemplation to her eighth studio album, Messages to God. In a quavering contralto thick with indeterminacy, she mirrors the experience of trying to clamber out of the darkness, but never knowing when it will end, or whether the light at the end of the tunnel exists at all.

Her previous three albums, released between 2019 and 2021, found solid footing (and a bleak sense of humor) in abjection, referencing heavy drinking, self-harm, her own suicide attempt. Lines tended to end in an anti-climax or a joke, alongside a streak of cruelty. “Tried to end it all, I’d not tried lately/August 11, 2019/And I didn’t call my mum/’Cause I hate that bitch,” she sung on 2021’s “Me and Ennui Are Friends, Baby.” The effect was one of emotional overstimulation rather than purgation.

Messages to God documents Chadwick’s attempt to find help and health, a process that’s boring and often irritating, like a slow, dull scratch. During the effort to move forward, she often falls back into her past, landing on heartbreak and hopeless nostalgia loops. But there are flashes of scattered beauty, lightning bolts of pure joy. “Well I’m here/I’m glad I’m still alive,” she sings like a secret on “I Felt Things in New Zealand,” a pause from her carousing vocal performance. At times Chadwick herself becomes a reliable and loving guide. On “Drinkin’ on a Tuesday,” a rollicking, boozy anthem, she proffers some genuinely great advice: “You gotta have a song to sing that will bring you to its knees with its beauty/And you gotta have a joke to tell that’ll help you make friends drinking on a Tuesday.”

In her previous triptych of albums, musical gestures were largely deprioritized in favor of Chadwick’s dramatic vocal delivery. Melodies were few and far between, as well as tonally inconsistent. She played her piano like a teenager throwing a tantrum during a school recital, bashing out a few chords here and there, keeping the composition as spare as possible, yet still furiously alive. She used her limited technical ability in service of her emotionally excessive performance. Here, pop melodies serve as a foil to Chadwick’s grave messages. A grand piano line, reminiscent of Aphrodite Child’s “Spring, Summer, Winter and Fall,” meets bluegrass slide guitar on “Don’t Tell Me I’m a Good Friend”; a psychedelic swirl of flutes surrounds her voice on “Only Bad Memories Last.” These flitting, willfully frivolous additions bring further drama and tension to Chadwick’s songcraft. The depression and abjection that once characterized her songs made them purgatorial, motiveless. Now, Chadwick floods them with wild and frenzied motive-seeking, performing the quest for lightness and reason with equal ferality.

Messages to God departs from her previous ultra-stalwart, self-immolating approach, as Chadwick makes a concerted effort to find beauty in the mundane, allowing herself to experience the drag of the time lag in order to do so. “I’m just trying to move my life/Away from strife and into love,” she sings on “Someone Else’s Baby,” operose and hesitant. Learning to get out of your own way requires understanding why you were acting as a roadblock in the first place. On Messages to God, Chadwick attempts to use that intense self-inquiry to move forward, knowing it’s a journey she must undertake for herself. Her most musically and emotionally dynamic work to date, Messages to God may not inch her much further toward heaven, though it makes a great leap towards Chadwick’s goal here on Earth: to perfectly transcribe the wretched, muddy, disgusting, beautiful mind.

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Sarah Mary Chadwick: Messages to God