No-so-hidden reference points abound in Courtney Barnett’s music. But rather than rattling off bands or artists she clearly 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.
Last chance to change your mind...