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I’ve found that you’re either a fan of Courtney Barnett, or you can’t stand her. There’s no middle ground. You either enjoy her over-extenuated Aussie drawl, or you don’t. You either enjoy the spoken word melodies, or you want a bit more oomph from your rock music. But after some deep soul searching, I’ve found that I’m an anomaly to my own hypothesis. I’m a fence sitter when it comes to Courtney Barnett. Sometimes I like her, sometimes I couldn’t give a rat’s ass. And I’ve been trying to figure out why that is.
I was a big advocate for Ms Barnett back in the day. I was a fan of singles like Pickles From the Jar and Avant Gardner, and of course, when her first album came out, I had Depreston on repeat so much so my neighbours thought they were living next to a middle-aged-woman going through a mid-life crisis. I enjoyed her quirky yet plain lyricism, almost like the Aussie female equivalent to Jerry Seinfeld. Barnett sang about the mundane and made the mundane enjoyable. And in doing so, Barnett achieved world acclaim and notability. There’s nothing wrong with that, she was just flogged on the airwaves more times than a DJ trying to be ironic by playing Sandstorm.
She was all over the place; touring the world, dancing with Ellen, and being called this generation’s Bob Dylan. I of course disagree with that statement. Yes, she’s a good lyricist, but she’s not writing the next Mr Tambourine Man. And then she laid dormant. Deservingly so, Barnett handled her spotlight better than most and slipped away from the public eye with grace.
But I stopped listening to Barnett; the phase had ended, the charm washed off. The only time I thought of Courtney Barnett was when I saw her album in the $30 vinyl bucket at JB Hi Fi. I didn’t listen to Barnett until her shared 2017 album with Kurt Vile: Lotta Sea Lice. Then it hit me, along with the thousand other articles that told me so; Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett share many similarities. Vile sings about mundane things and has a peculiar singing style and mixes Americana and Rock music. Barnett has a peculiarly Aussie accent and toys with the mundane in her lyrics and mixes Americana and Grunge. So of course, the two should make an album. And I enjoyed that one too, but I found myself liking Vile’s songs more. Take that with a grain of salt though, I listen to Vile once a week. But I started to think further, so what makes Vile more appealing to me than Barnett? Is it the voice? Is it some deep-seeded, psychological draw to a masculine tone? Is this even worth dissecting?
Everyone was hyping up her sophomore album Tell Me How You Really Feel. And I had a certain expectation going in. I was hoping that she had grown as a songwriter; ready to tackle serious issues with her ‘average-joe’ lyricism. I hoped that the instrumentation would improve and maybe she’d hold a stronger melody in her hooks. On paper I think she’s achieved that, while keeping the same attitude she’s carried through her career. Yet, I’m not convinced of her comparisons to the great lyricists of yesteryear.
Instrumentally, I believe Tell Me How You Really Feel is a drastic improvement than her debut album Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit. Barnett and Co blend grungy riffs and breakdown into softer melodic sections like in the opening track Hopefulessness. It’s a slow burn, as a sluggish bass bops in the background and a bending guitar riffs twist and turn. Barnett’s trademark tone kicks in, this time she holds a strong vocal melody instead of her blur between spoken word and singing. In saying that, the melody is quite lazy, almost tired, which complements the sluggish instrumentation and lyricism about depression and unwillingness to continue: a hopelessness.
The solid instrumentation continues on City Looks Pretty. Soaring, distorted guitar lines fly past in the chorus against a solid drum beat and guitar combo. Barnett’s voice has never sounded stronger as she sings cleverly mundane and relatable lyrics “The city looks pretty when you’ve been indoors, for 23 days I’ve ignored all your phone calls.” City Looks Pretty sees Barnett at her lyrical best on the album, dissecting issues that are relevant to our generation: “you never say what you mean, friends treat you like a stranger and strangers treat you like their best friend, oh well,” — tying into what Barnett is trying to create from her album title. The track switches half way into a breakdown, showcasing some excellent production on the guitar riffs, bass lines and simple drum beats. This is the sophistication that I expected from Tell Me How You Really Feel.
Instrumentally, Charity is another strong track; the thick, fuzzy guitar lines are a nice change compared to the grungy production and Barnett continues her bittersweet vocal melodies. My enjoyment of this album is mostly made from awe of the consistently well produced instrumentation. But I think that the first three tracks are the strongest out of the ten-track album. Nameless, Faceless is another high point lyrically, as Barnett tackles heavy subject material with her every-day lyricism. Her lyrics delve into physical abuse against women with lines such as “I wanna walk through the park in the dark, women are scared that men will kill them,” and “I hold my keys between my fingers.” She holds no punches in this track, painting a vividly horrific picture but delivering it with a sweet vocal harmony backing. Another showcase of the sophistication I expected from the album.
After the first half of the album, Barnett delivers more mediocre tracks than I would have liked. I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch is a cleverly punchy grunge tune, but it’s over before Barnett has time to delve deeper into the subject material like she did on City Looks Pretty and Nameless, Faceless. Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Self Confidence is a clever title and has a catchy melody, but I’m not drawn to it like I am the first few tracks. And that’s the same case for Walkin’ On Eggshells and closing track Sunday Roast.
I maintain the fact that instrumentally, Tell Me How You Really Feel is a joy to listen to. Each track is made up of cleverly written guitar lines and band jams, serving as some of the best rock music to be written in a long time. But it’s not an instrumental album, and it’s not Courtney Barnett and [insert clever band name]. It’s her album, and by the time the fifth tracks comes around, I’m tired of her slacker, run of the mill delivery. Though she’s holding more a melody in this album, it becomes tiresome, I’m Not Your Mother being the only fast, heavy pick-me-up on the album.
I listened to this album a couple times on release and never came back until I had to listen to it for this article. It’s not the best album of the year and it’s not the Highway 61 Revisited of our generation. It’s just an alright album. And after considering the question I posed at the start of this After the Hype, I think it’s an issue of over-expectation as to why I don’t click with Barnett anymore. While her first album was different enough from the common crop to leave a lasting impression, her latter material has never strayed far from what made her famous. Maybe I’ve just seen through the Salon/social media bullshit of calling her the next Bob Dylan or the artist of our generation, and I just see Courtney Barnett as fine musician who delivers cleverly written rock tunes, some of the time.
Tell Me How You Really Feel is not worth the hype.
After the Hype is a weekly series where I listen to an album after the hype dies down and give my general thoughts, sometimes a little whinge. It’s ok to disagree.
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