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What A Time To Be Alive (Compass Brothers)


ARE YOU A SUBSCRIBER to the idea that you gotta laugh because if you don’t you’ll cry? If you’re not, Raechel Whitchurch may yet convince you.

Her second album is centred by a moment of the starkest grief, a song of utter devastation that is both irresistible to hear and almost impossible to listen to – impossible to listen to without being moved, probably to tears every time. And it features a level of frankness about familial, commercial and practical relationships that might well be bracing for those who recognise themselves in different songs.

However, it also packs self-deprecating humour and a wry take on foibles, often within the same songs as the frankness, that leavens or provides an escape route when things get tricky. Or, you could say, deflects from some of the bluntest barbs.

Strange Is My Middle Name is one such, a fiddle-led bit of a dirt floor stomper that weaves in her childhood (playing in the family band from the age of 10; faith as a given; caravans as home) with a perspective 20 years on that isn’t entirely sure anymore because that was what she knew as normal but now “You tell a story, something funny from your life/But it’s just silent, no one’s laughing/Til someone says are you all right?”

As the eminently danceable song twirls on, she confesses in her nasally Blue Ridge-meets-the western plains of NSW voice, “Now I’m not sure if I’m alright”. But hey, it could be worse. “So I tried to live a normal life, I got me a 9-to-5/Now I think that was the strangest thing I’ve done in all my life.”

With this song situated near the beginning of the album, between the always-the-outsider confession of a bouncy I’m Not Cool (“It’s not cool to be too excited about anything at all/And its not cool to have a whole plan about the way you want the chips to fall”) that reveals itself to be a defiant love song, and the slower, partly pedal steel/partly jangly Back Where I Belong, a paean to giving up city life without any certainty for a return to one place that always feels like home (“Sometimes your true north is way out west”), Whitchurch has given the country formalists/traditionalists their due without sounding like she’s compromised.

Throw in the hustling Paul Kelly And The Coloured Girls energy of Nothing Makes You Happy (hiding within it a brutal-but-polite takedown of a certain type) and the easy amble of Drink Until You’re Alright (not really hiding its clear-eyed take on someone running from truths about themselves) and What A Time To Be Alive might pass for bright and breezy fun. But wait.

The title track is an almost – almost – matter-of-fact telling of Whitchurch losing a baby and how “dealing with it” is such a woefully inadequate phrase. Eschewing any musical dramatics or emphases (sticking to finger-picked guitar and voice; the tempo walking-pace; her delivery conversational), and basically told as addressed to that child, it lets the story find you so that its regular hammer blows, right from its opening lines, are even more powerful and upsetting.

Lines like “And everyone said I did good/Guess I cried the right amount and kept it private when I could”. And “I wish I’d gone on my own/But your brother came to see on the big screen the baby that I’d grown/And I could see it on her face/And I prayed that I was wrong but I read people every day”. I’m not sure how many times I have played this song now, though it would be comfortably more than 30, and I am yet to hear it without a gut punch.

Where Magnolias Grow, a promise to a young child to be there for her, follows What A Time To Be Alive and it’s needed: a reminder of life that goes on – that has to go on – because burying yourself in grief isn’t just your indulgence. But once again without loading on excess, though this time in a full-bodied arrangement, Whitchurch makes every ridge of these emotions tangible. It’s another smart song that feels so easy to listen to.

Death appears one more time on the record, in the closing Like They Don’t Know, and while its focus is at the other end of a life, and consolation – in this case a faith shared – is present, the pain isn’t washed away any easier. How does the rest of the world keep moving along as normal, indifferent really, when someone you love is leaving? Whitchurch captures a few clear images that put you near the feeling, her wearied voice offers more connection, and the slow waltz works as a balm. It’s simply done, yes, but it simply works.

You know, maybe that original idea could be simpler still: you laugh and you cry. That’s how it works.



If you’re in Sydney today (May 24), Raechel Whitchurch launches What A Time To Be Alive at The Vanguard this evening.



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