Three years on from a spectacular debut album, how does Courtney Barnett really feel? Nick Bollinger listens to her latest and offers his conclusions.
It’s three years since Courtney Barnett’s startling first album, Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit, and with her blunt Australian accent, sharp wit and reckless rock’n’roll guitar, opening gambits don’t come much more impressive.
She was never going to be able to make the same album again, and she hasn’t tried to. Still, I couldn’t help wondering where all that wit and energy had gone when I first heard this.
‘Hopefulessness’ is the opening track and in spite of a typically playful title and the ear-catching advice to ‘take your broken hear/turn it into art’, the song seems to announce its disenchantment almost before it starts, with its grindingly slow tempo, gradually building to a chorus that simply goes ‘I don’t wanna know’. The tempo picks up in the songs that follow, yet the mood remains primarily one of discomfort.
Part of the great appeal of Sometimes I Sit was its utilitarian use of guitars, and there’s still plenty of that here. Barnett was never trying to jump onto fashionable bandwagons or reinvent the distortion pedal. She was rocking out and enjoying it. And if her music was, on one level, a catalogue of indie-rock commonplaces, it was refreshed by her terrific lyrics. She dealt with a range of modern menaces, from loneliness to obsession, in a seemingly unstoppable flow of rhymes and riffs. It was as though whatever the world had to throw at this millennial, she was ready to meet it.
But three years and a truckload of acclaim later, Barnett isn’t sounding quite so resilient. It’s not that she has lost that down-to-earth humour or deep-seated humanity that radiated from those earlier songs; in fact, she seems to be doing her utmost to empathise - with lovers and haters, friends and assailants - in these latest ones. It does all seem to be making her awfully tired, though.
Last year Barnett made an album with American indie-rocker Kurt Vile, Lotta Sea Lice, which proved a more than adequate stopgap. It was both goofy and sincere, and noticeably free of the psychic burdens that dominate this new album.
Yet at her best, Barnett can still turn the friction of life into fantastic songs.
One of the strongest here is ‘Nameless Faceless’, which starts out as her response to a social media troll – to whom she offers more empathy than he deserves – but delivers its real memo in the chorus with the words ‘men are scared that women will laugh at them... women are scared that men will kill them’ – a line that, admittedly, originates with Margaret Atwood, but which is just too potent not to sing.
At other times the threats seem to be coming from somewhere within. ‘Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Self Confidence’ is not the only song where she seems to be describing from personal experience the mental switches that either hinder or help us to get through the day, or the life.
Tell Me How You Really Feel is good – actually, it’s great. Just don’t expect the youthful exuberance of its predecessor. For most of these songs the answer to the question posed in the title seems to be: strung-out, tired and anxious. Yet she does end on a cautiously ascendant note. ‘Keep on keeping on’ she sings in the final song - to a friend, a lover, her audience or perhaps just herself. ‘You know you’re not alone, I know all your stories, but I’ll listen to them again.’