★★★★

“Life’s not about being happy, Sarah/Life’s not about having fun,” sings Sarah Mary Chadwick on I’m Not Allowed in Heaven. The prolific Melbourne-via-New Zealand songwriter is beloved for her melancholic musings on existential despair, continuing the trend on this, her stunning sixth album. The title track is an exercise in deft, emotional storytelling, as Chadwick contemplates death through her idols Sylvia Plath and Elliott Smith, before taking a more hopeful turn. Last year she wrote and performed an album on Melbourne Town Hall’s organ, so it is no surprise that her arrangements here are complex and sublime, blending keyboards, wind and brass with her ethereal vocals. Some tracks, such as Let’s Fight, make for an upbeat reprieve from a mood that is largely sombre – but it is far from dreary listening. “I’ve let go of all my pain/Through sheer willpower I’ve made it leave,” she sings on the closer, All Lies. This is an album of pain but, more importantly, of resilience: Chadwick imbues even the most devastating songs with a fighting spirit; a glimmer of hope that, in this modern age of dread, feels more necessary than ever. GISELLE AU-NHIEN NGUYEN

SINGER-SONGWRITER

Andy Shauf

THE NEON SKYLINE (ANTI-)

★★★★

Andy Shauf’s 2016 concept album The Party was quite rightly acclaimed as one of the finest albums of that year, and indeed was a minor highlight of the entire decade. The four-year delay in its follow-up appearing is partly due to the Canadian returning to his band Foxwarren, with whom he indulges a slightly more expansive and experimental approach than in his solo career, which as The Party showed, is in the realm of poetic singer-songwriters such as Elliott Smith, Sufjan Stevens, and – going back further – Randy Newman. Neon Skyline is more of the same: delicious song-writing supported by gentle production in which clarinets, played by Shauf himself, are a particular highlight. Even the most casual of pop music fans will discern Shauf’s strong nods to Paul Simon circa Still Crazy After All These Years, with his wordy and lively songs and intelligent and urbane wit – an influence most obvious on the outstanding title track. That is an example of how tight Shauf’s writing can be, whereas other songs, such as the equally good Living Room, meander more, a little jazzily. Both sides of the Canadian’s work are a delight. BARNABY SMITH

JAZZ

The Bad Plus

ACTIVATE INFINITY (Edition/Planet)

★★★★

That the Bad Plus could continue without Ethan Iverson came as a surprise. That the trio would still sound this much like Bad Plus with a different pianist is mind-boggling, especially as the brilliant Orrin Evans is very much his own man at the keyboard. It’s testimony to bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King’s clarity of intention in their two-decade experiment in expanding the language of the piano trio. Gone now are the covers of rock songs: all material here comes from the three members, whose compositions widen, but never entirely negate, that edgy Bad Plus sound. Even the fragile beauty of Evans’s Looking in Your Eyes and Reid’s Love Is the Answer sit easily in the mix without seeming rope-ins from another repertoire. Around these the inclination to appropriate some of rock’s stylistic devices, without churning out music that could be called jazz-rock, remains. Perhaps Evans emphasises the band’s eccentricity slightly less than did Iverson, but in return he builds greater suppleness into the sound; a jazzy fluidity that re-contextualizes the back-beat music. The recording quality is exquisite, and the Edition label continues to grow in significance. JOHN SHAND

FOLK ROCK

David Keenan

A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO BRAVERY (Rubyworks)

★★★½

Irishman David Keenan is quite Irish. There’s the impassioned delivery, the mostly acoustic blend of folk and soul and rock and church and pub, which is in a cross-border line from (Belfast’s) Van Morrison to (Dublin’s) Glen Hansard. There’s the way songs will rise from swaying, slow-burn verses to driven choruses to a late-in-the-piece climax, which can come after six or seven or even eight minutes. And there’s a flurry of words, densely packed and sometimes spilling over in a torrent, which references matters and people poetic and philosophical, dramatic and emotional, historical and national. (Keenan mentions Samuel Beckett within the first minutes of the opening song). So, yeah, Keenan, from the border town of Dundalk – between Morrison and Hansard, you could say – does rack up the touchstones on his debut album. If you have problems with the genre, run away now, for there is nothing here to convince you otherwise. For the rest of us the question is, does he do them well? Yes, yes he does. With a caveat that sometimes pulling back – in length or in imagery or in delivery – would do the good material a greater service. BERNARD ZUEL

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