MELANIE HORSNELL AND STEVE APPEL
The World Has A Gentle Soul (Good Stem Records/MGM)
Normally I’m not one for the sweet escape or the musical comfort stop: that promise usually comes with some surfing dude, an acoustic guitar and the tedium meter set to extreme. Or a Mothers’ Day atrocity with some Irish tenor in a tux. Or – shudder – Conrad Vance Joy Sewell Bay Shoot Me Now Please God Shoot Me Now.
But in the midst of the omnishambles which is federal politics, the confederacy of deadly dunces which is the rise of the racist and fascist Right, the death rattle boogie which is our climate, and a shitty season for my footy team, I’ve come to point where I’m in for this.
Melanie Horsnell and Steve Appel somehow have me saying count me in for an album which wants to remind that the world has a gentle soul, that offers a list of reasons in the first – title – song alone that encompasses “the way a dew beads on a web just so when the sun in the morning burns the mist off the river freezing cold”.
I know, I know, but hear me out. Feeling like it was recorded with them a few metres apart at the kitchen table, around one microphone - and very likely someone’s dog asleep under table, offering snuffling noises in the quietest bits if you listen closely enough – this record just plays it simple, straight and genuine. A killer combination.
It’s kinda country, kinda folk, kinda natural really, neither singer straining at all to make something more from these songs than they need. And neither pretending that happiness is as simple as willing it so. And maybe this is where I come in: the world may have a gentle soul but not all the winds buffeting said soul are gentle.
In What Will Become Of Us, Appel sings as if addressing the very same “gentle useless friends” for whom “all that stands between the door and here is a magic language we can hear”, even as he contemplates the diaspora to come as time and debt and “soft boiled eggs under cigarette trees” separates them.
During Princes Park Motel, which plays like an 18th century northern English melody and is sung with a sense of fragility, Horsnell is cracking not just at the edges but at the centre: “I lay on the bedroom floor, Princes Park Motel/Hope my head will hurt no more”.
Hurt and uncertainty are not strangers elsewhere either. The man in his suit and coat preparing to go on forever now without his wife, in Tall Trees Arms. The woman who “learned how to live from Dylan, and that’s why I’m so shy” and battles the darkness within because “that not what I want to be”, in I Learned How To Love From Love Songs. The slightly wobbly-voiced bloke who says “If I appear to be drunk, it’s just because I need to be” in Skeletons Of Light.
So how or why is this comforting? The kindness and care here, the humanity, is evident in everything, happy or sad. In Someone Like You, the voices lean against each other as both backstop and encourager. In Sugar And White Man a story of stolen land, stolen generations and stolen past won’t succumb to being a story of a stolen future, the single voice holding on to something: “I want my sisters to hold my hand/We’ll love one another and together we’ll stand.”
Without fuss but a sense of care, without shouting its intentions or overplaying its hand, The World Has A Gentle Soul proves its truth by being itself. That’s not escape, that’s not sweet, but it is a quantifiable good.