Music

How Courtney Barnett Taught Me to Listen to the New Album From Courtney Barnett

The singer-songwriter’s sophomore LP requires its audience to take a different approach.

Courtney Barnett performs live on stage during Fortress Festival on April 29 in Fort Worth, Texas.
Courtney Barnett performs live on stage during Fortress Festival on April 29 in Fort Worth, Texas.
Jim Bennett/Getty Images

The first sound on Courtney Barnett’s new, second album, Tell Me How You Really Feel, is a guitar string releasing a heavy sigh. It’s being tuned down from a brighter note to a darker, dourer one, before starting the initial song, “Hopefulessness.” A few songs into the record, that downward slide seems like an omen: Beware, all ye who enter here, for this is how Courtney Barnett is really feeling—exhausted. Or, at least, so I first thought.

Barnett is a 30-year-old singer-songwriter based in Melbourne, Australia, who plays a mean electric guitar, backed by a steady trio of male associates, and who has a wickedly piquant way with words … usually. Her beginning EPs and her 2015 debut full-length album—Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sitattracted a cult following, critical plaudits, and a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. That it went to Meghan “All About That Bass” Trainor instead was the epitome of Grammy-misfire syndrome, selecting the easily digested version of witty pop feminism over the substantial one.

That album saw Barnett automatically and boringly compared to Bob Dylan, as a storytelling troubadour who favored cascades of internally rhymed and punning wordplay, often half spoken and half sung. To me, she was more reminiscent of early-’80s Billy Bragg. Like Bragg, Barnett relayed in a poeticized vernacular her perplexed and acute socio-personal anecdotes and observations, in regionally accented banter, over tactile, punky guitar—post-Clash in his case, post–Nirvana-Breeders–Liz Phair in hers. After considering the parallel, I stumbled upon some evidence: Barnett’s 2014 cover of Bragg’s “Milkman of Human Kindness,” in cheeky tribute to her own self-started label, Milk Records. Each artist’s songs could be on the slight side, with notable exceptions, such as her “Elevator Operator,” “History Eraser,” “Depreston,” and “Pedestrian at Best.” But each had humor, insight, and promise to burn.

Where Barnett seemed to split from the Bard of Barking (aside from gender, and all that entails) was on the class angle: His characters were arguing at the unemployment office before fumbling for romance in a cold-water flat, while the stand-ins for this daughter of a ballet dancer and a graphic designer were shopping for real estate, doing gardening, and fretting about gentrification and organic vegetables. That is, some of Barnett’s songs felt a little Portlandia for my tastes.

I also had misgivings about those misgivings: Middle-class listener faults artist for middle-class subject matter! Male critic put off by female songwriter’s domestic settings! World changes, daggummit, film at 11! Still, I wasn’t ready to rave about Barnett as loudly as many critics and NPR programmers across the land did. It can be pernicious to put women in competition with each other, yet Barnett did have a lot in common with her American feminist-rock peers, such as Waxahatchee, Angel Olsen, and Big Thief. I was more drawn to the latter set’s less diffident affects and more pressing stakes—as a Canadian, I often find myself compelled by the more shamelessly forward U.S. exemplars of a genre, over the complicated reticence of the Brits and us colonials. Still, I was looking forward to Barnett’s songs growing in time, as Bragg’s did, from anxiously smart sketches to fully fleshed-out dramas. I felt like some of that was developing between her and Kurt Vile on their collaborative album last year, Lotta Sea Lice, even with its deliberate slackness.

But as that moaning, unwinding string on “Hopefulessness” seems to warn, Tell Me How You Really Feel heads in another direction. It’s much more introspective, less narrative, less dense, and much less eager to entertain with snappy patter. It does broaden Barnett’s scope in places, notably in the raging midalbum diptych “Nameless, Faceless” and “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch,” which finds her explicitly protesting sexual violence and gendered confinements (issues she’s been outspoken about in the Australian music industry). But primarily it’s a full-length portrait of someone whose anxiety, depression, and plain hurt are obstructing her ability to savor success and personal intimacy, conditions that Barnett has often acknowledged in interviews, but that didn’t seem to hold her back before.

Most of the songs are one-sided arguments with herself, or her wife (Jen Cloher, also a singer-songwriter—on the side, Barnett plays in her band), or antagonists who she’s not sure are listening and about whom, when it comes to online misogynist trolls, she doesn’t want to care. The music evokes impulses with which most people, especially young women coping with the same kind of ingrown self-hatred, surely can empathize. At these songs’ best, they trace the protagonist’s struggle to extend that same empathy to herself. But they remain studies in anhedonia, and by definition, that can be a difficult thing to enjoy. Another lyric from “Hopefulessness” is “Just get this one done/ Then you can move along.” Early on, I feared it might be a slogan for the whole record—the notoriously daunting second album, when career has made creativity an obligation that comes with a deadline, regardless of inspiration and breathing room.

Barnett’s voice generally has a more numbed-out, weary tone on this album, which creates an atmosphere but also a sameness. She does rise to a shout or ease into sunnier climes at times, as on the final, benedictory track, “Sunday Roast,” and in the high, stretched-out chorus of “Need a Little Time” (“Time out from me, me, me, me/ and you”). But while she’s maintained the stream-of-consciousness spontaneity of her lyrical style, the notions she finds drifting in that stream tend to be clichés about distress (“Walkin’ on Eggshells,” for instance) and self-help, even when leavened by the irony implied in the title “Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Self Confidence.” There’s little of her former dryly surrealistic play with syllables and word associations and, more worryingly, few of the idiosyncratic scenic and social details that distinguished her previous songs. The shift is so pronounced, it must have been a choice.

A couple of the most memorable lines on the album are borrowed: On “Hopefulessness,” it’s a line from Carrie Fisher that was quoted by Meryl Streep at the 2017 Golden Globes: “Take your broken heart/ [and] turn it into art.” And on “Nameless, Faceless,” it’s a paraphrased quote from Margaret Atwood: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Barnett uses them in creative and forceful ways—juxtaposing Atwood’s chilly social diagnosis with “I wanna walk through the park in the dark … I hold my keys between my fingers!”—but I couldn’t help being bothered that each had been recycled thousands of times on social media. It’s distracting when a song suddenly feels like a retweet. And given the insecurity that’s so often depicted here, it made me wonder if Barnett was drawn to the guaranteed approval of these demonstrations of solidarity, a pressure we all know from social media now.

But then, of course, solidarity is a genuine sensation, and connection a true comfort. There’s something alive and engaged about putting a song in dialogue with outside, ongoing conversation. Permitting oneself the cliché rather than reaching for the exotically imaginative could be a way of being more everyday, grounded, and direct. That got me listening to Tell Me How You Really Feel as if its title were addressed to the listener, as an effort to expose and share the “hopefulessness” that countless people have been feeling about the world. That first lowered guitar note is grumblier, but it also resonates more deeply with the chords. It banishes the diffidence. Even the exclusion of lyrical material circumstance arguably permits a more embracing universality.

Often, it takes a while for an album to teach us how to hear it, or a book how to read it, or a film or TV series how to see it. Barnett’s previous records prepared me to attend to the units of her words as mobile, multiple-perspective cameras, whizzing and recording and editing and jump-cutting (and I tend to be a lyrics-oriented listener anyway). This album, instead, is a series of mood pieces, or one long one, and with repeated exposure the verbiage recedes from the foreground, yielding to the fluctuating timbres of Barnett’s voice and above all her instrumental interactions with her band.

A hint that this might be the best way to hear it comes, again, in that indexlike opening track: Barnett shrugs, “Getting louder now,” and the song bursts into a wordless section that shakes off the torpor, which is something that happens over and over on this record. It’s as if there are feelings in play that the lyrics can only point to, and this time around, Barnett’s guitar, in concert with her bandmates, is more eloquent than her words.

The Sonic Youth–like, overtone-laden chug of “City Looks Pretty” counterbalances the “oh well” aimlessness of the writing. The guitar-plus-organ duo at the end of “Need a Little Time” expands immensely on the song’s emotional zone. The cabaret or carnival lilt of the accompaniment to “Nameless, Faceless” frames its social message in a more quizzical and contradictory way. The rats’ nests of feedback on “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch” are ornery enough that they would signify exactly the same way without any lyrics at all—though definitely keep, “I can only put up with so much/ shit!” The voyage emerges into the clearing of intertwined string picking, gentle drum beats, companionability, and generosity of “Sunday Roast”: “Keep on keepin’ on, you know you’re not alone/ And I know all your stories, but I’ll listen to them again” (embedded there: “listen … again”). And the potent assists on two tracks by Kim and Kelley Deal of the Breeders must have been a not-at-all-anhedonic thrill for their younger fan.

I’m now thinking of Tell Me How You Really Feel as a record by the Courtney Barnett Band—one that shows more than it tells. Who knows what that implies for Barnett’s certainly long future, but I did note that when I returned to Sometimes I Sit and Think after being reconditioned by the new record, I barely heard the insularity or preciousness I’d thought it had before. I also wondered whether, if I’d heard her live rather than just through recordings and podcasts, those qualities ever would have seemed like obstacles at all. I’m more than ever convinced that her debut is the greater achievement and do wish that she’ll reboost her lyrical turbines. But I’ve only lived with this new work for a couple of days, and we’ve only lived with this particular, Trump-distorted reality warp for a couple of years.

Even if Tell Me doesn’t prove all that durable, I’m glad I was suspicious of my disappointment with it, because it made me even warier of my earlier reflexes and projections around Barnett. The stream-and-sample tasting menu through which we consume music and everything else in 2018 encourages half-formed opinions to get lodged in place as we hurry on to the next sound, or the next meme, or the next headline. Allowing art, ideas, and events sufficient space and time to alter us, to undermine that confirmation bias, feels like one of the few avenues for removing the lessness from the hopeful.