Universe was written and recorded by Mel Fung and her husband Andy in the years leading up to Mel's untimely death from cancer. The album, with its psychedelic through-the-keyhole artwork, invites us to briefly view the world through the eyes of someone who knew she wouldn't be here much longer; as such, it is a sad, confrontational listen, but to Fung's eternal credit, her songs never totally succumb to despair even as they stare death square in the face.
Indeed, Angela - the album's bouncy opener - will come as a disarming surprise if you're braced for a Hospice-style miserython:
Things do get a bit more contemplative further down the tracklist, but the only truly devastating track here is This is Nothing. The title initially suggests a cheerfully dismissive handwave ("How's it going, Mel?" "I'm fine! This is nothing!"), but the song itself is actually a numb-sounding number that imagines the afterlife as a vast, empty void:
"Never any shelter from this rain
Never anything to bring you pleasure again
This is Nothing
This is Nothing
No pleasure whatsoever
No pleasure whatsoever"
In the main, though, Fung uses her final recordings to ponder not her own death but the mysteries of Life itself. "Can you tell me who I am, can you tell me why?" she asks searchingly on the Trwbador-esque Can You Save Me, perhaps attempting to answer The Big Questions before her time on Earth runs out. Elsewhere, on Look Up at the Stars, she implores the rest of us to consider those same questions now instead of waiting for terminal illness to force us into contemplation:
"Wherever you are tonight
Look up at the stars tonight
Wherever you are tonight
Look up and remember"
Universe is a lot of things: a knowing swansong, one final artistic statment, a heartfelt message to the people Fung was preparing to leave behind (had I known Mel personally, the beautiful I Don't Miss You would have had me curled up and weeping into my kneecaps for months). But perhaps more than anything, this album serves as a friendly hello from beyond the final curtain; Fung won't be here to learn whether there's life beyond this planet's boundaries, or what The Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything really is, and so the purpose of Universe is to ask the rest of us to keep searching for those solutions in her memory.
Universe by Mandy (Mel + Andy = Mandy, geddit?) is out today on Bubblewrap Records. Buy it here.