Album Review: Courtney Barnett, a Stranger’s Best Friend

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Tell Me How You Really Feel

For all the articles labeling Courtney Barnett a “slacker,” you’d be hard pressed to find a person with so many extracurricular activities. A record label (Milk! Records), last year’s collaborative album and tour with Kurt Vile, playing in Jen Cloher’s band – if this is Barnett’s process of procrastination, we should all hope to be so productive in the middle of avoidance.

I say procrastination, because you’d still be hard pressed to find someone who would willingly take themselves apart, and dissect the messy innards of their anxiety and self-doubt. Such bravery is a rarity.

It’s been just a few short years since Barnett’s stellar debut Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit was released. To say that this time has felt eternal to me, is an understatement. I have been waiting to write this review for a very long time.

My greatest fear was that I would end up disappointed, and have to find another performer who sang about her (and my) anxieties in a clever and hilarious way. Instead, I was relieved to find that Barnett has crafted an excellent album with the same wry observations of an introvert, but with a new wave of clarity and assertion. There is no Oliver Paul, no allusions to Debbie Downer – just Courtney.

The title of her follow-up, Tell Me How You Really Feel, beckons in various states. When Kim and Kelley Deal sing it, it’s a bratty taunt. A dare, a request, a genuine curiosity – this album was made to respond to the anxiety of telling the truth.

Teaming up again with producers Dave Luscombe and Burke Reid from Sometimes…, they have crafted a more expansive palette of sounds, building off of the excellent drone and fuzz we were first introduced to. Her lineup is also the same, with Bones Sloane on bass and Dave Mudie drumming. The band maintains the same ease of previous albums, despite the added layers of production.

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Courtney Barnett by Pooneh Ghana

Tell Me How You Really Feel begins with an ominous tone, “Hopefulessness,” potent in its repetition and drawl. It’s a great opener, introducing us to the tug of war you’ll find throughout the album: is Courtney talking to me or to herself? Consumed by her own thoughts, a tea kettle whistle for a beat too long in the background, until it’s shut it off and the next track pulsates through.

“City Looks Pretty” is layered with warbles and wails that sound like the incessant chatter of strangers, a theme you’ll hear again and again. The shock of being drowned into an odd sort of spotlight, and then being hurtled back home, is omnipresent. The strangeness of your insecurities becoming anthemic. “Charity” and “Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Self-Confidence” dissect the realization that even once you have what you want, you still have to learn how to exist with your anxieties.

When Barnett returns to the fundamentals of her sound, they are assured with frenzy and power. Thanks to the Deal sisters, the chorus on “Nameless, Faceless” is so catchy, that you’ll completely forget how incendiary it is when you sing it

  • While doing laundry,
  • buying groceries and
  • getting the mail.

I also highly recommend listening to it on a crowded subway train at full blast on your headphones. You’ll get some curious looks or a nod of solidarity.

At 1:50, “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch” is the shortest track and it’s Barnett at her best. Raw and volatile, it has echoes of the same excellence as “Pedestrian At Best.” A highlight is her goofily chuckling at herself after screaming “Shit!” before ripping into a solo. Coming off the heels of “Nameless, Faceless,” the two could not be a better “fuck you.” Nothing’s more satisfying than telling someone what a monster they’ve been. These two songs are the anthems made for that.

Many songs on the record experiment with the percussive weight of an organ and piano, allowing new genres to seep through Barnett’s familiar sound. “Help Yourself” starts off with a riff akin to a rodeo, with some of the best lyrics on the whole album. The line “humble but hungry, need validation” defines so many of us eager to be and do more. “Walking on Eggshells” has the most robust sound, with strings that add a rich depth in tone we hadn’t heard from her before. There’s a kind of twang to the track that could’ve sat nicely on Lotta Sea Lice.

Having been put through the ringer, a singalong and a warm hug feel earned with the closing track “Sunday Roast.” We’re also hearing a new expressiveness in her voice, with an added lilt here and there. Like many a Courtney tune, the song ends on a fade out, with Barnett singing “it’s all the same to me.”

At first glance, the album’s structure resembles the stages of grief, with a sadness that’s pervasive from the beginning. The anger seeping through into “Nameless, Faceless” and detonating on “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch.” But grief doesn’t really work as neatly as you’d like to. Instead, the album’s ebb and flow jumbles all those emotions and combines them with a growing empathy for others and for yourself. The crux lies in “Need A Little Time”: the realization that you need time for and from yourself.

Whereas Barnett’s earlier albums displayed a penchant for storytelling; of bad allergic reactions, an odd stream of thoughts in a dream, a crush on someone at a swimming pool, this album comprises the minutiae of emotions she hadn’t expressed before, making those stories whole. Ultimately it’s a reassurance to Barnett herself, to you, to me, to surrender to the daunting realization that none of us knows what we’re doing…and that’s okay. The most we can do is be kind and cut ourselves a little slack. Especially if Courtney thinks “you’re doing just fine.”

Header art by Emily Csuy

Stream Tell Me How You Really Feel: Apple Music / Spotify / Bandcamp

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