No-so-hidden reference points abound in Courtney Barnett’s music. But rather than rattling off bands or artists she clearly admires—here, Kim and Kelley Deal of the Breeders make an appearance, for instance—it helps first to explain why Barnett rises above reference points. It’s primarily due to her casual and bare yet approachable voice, which graces almost all of her lyrics with a conversational tone. Other singers possess such a trait—see Jenny Lewis, for example—yet Barnett specializes in a sort of barfly wisdom. Her observations and scenarios are relatable to the point of feeling rather common. But then, a lyrical dagger transforms her into a savant. A deceptive menace also graces her guitar playing (one that would likely make Kurt Cobain proud) even as her soundscapes often live in the folk-meets-punk world of Patti Smith. Unlike both those artists, however, she comes off as a long-lost confidant.
While a wry sense of humor occasionally crops up in Barnett’s fare—“I wish you had a guru who told you to let it go,” she sings of a confrontation she doesn’t want to have early on the album—such frankness helps the music appear personal and intimate. Barnett constantly feels in conversation with the listener, and at times even answers her own questions, making the set well-suited for nights alone at home when you don’t want to feel all that alone.
The 2000 film High Fidelity does a solid job or reflecting the book’s portrayal of adulthood from a male perspective. Barnett’s efforts flip the script. While romance isn’t always a focal point of her writing, coming to grips with modern life often serves as a crux. Sonically, Barnett’s music also owes quite a bit to the era reflected in the film. Don’t be surprised if her songs pop up in Disney’s female-led High Fidelity reboot, projected to come to the company’s streaming service.
On this, only her second proper solo album, Courtney Barnett takes a sharp detour into over-analyzing self-doubt and the peculiar dynamics of one-to-one relationships. Her debut, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, takes a slightly broader worldview. Many of its songs provide character sketches rather than probes of her own mind. But after working with the like-minded Kurt Vile on last year’s Lotta Sea Lice, on which the two converse and challenge one another over low-key arrangements, Barnett appears to be more heavily focused on self-examination.
“Take your broken heart, turn it into art,” she signs on the album-opening “Hopefulessness,” in which a grunge-inspired guitar slowly guides her along. Often, Barnett seems to delve into sensations of loneliness or fear. The scrappy pop of “City Looks Pretty” contrasts feelings of drifting apart from old friends with that of encountering overly familial strangers, while the peppy verses and darkly stomping choruses on “Nameless, Faceless” illuminate daily anxieties faced by women in 2018. “I hold my keys between my fingers,” she sings, before alluding to the predatorial nature of the men being brought to light in the #MeToo era.
On the rousing, punk-leaning “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch,” Barnett cops an aggressive, in-your-face attitude even while the lyrics go for nuance. Despite the fists-raised nature of the title, the song seeks to highlight the miscommunication between two parties. The theme of navigating such treacherous terrain appears more than once on the record. “Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Self-Confidence” stresses how one’s personality can heighten feelings of insecurity in someone else, and Barnett sings “I’m not claiming I’m some patron saint” on the defeated “Walkin’ on Eggshells.”
While older fans may miss the observational nature of Barnett’s earlier work, her sound remains welcoming—a trait owing to her own craft as well as the average, slightly tossed-off and muddled production that mirrors the conversationalist nature of the singer’s approach yet fails to present the acumen of her musicianship or arrangements with any true definition. Tell Me How You Really Feel is nonetheless peppered with pleasant surprises.
See the closing “Sunday Roast,” a beautiful love letter to a friend or a companion in which a huggable melody finds adoration in someone’s faults. If familiarity can easily breed contempt, as these songs often seem to say, Barnett leaves us with a message of warning: Do not take such closeness for granted. “I know all your stories but I’ll listen to them again,” she sings as the song nears its conclusion and just before the listener likely hits the repeat button.
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