Music

On New Album, Courtney Barnett Takes a Load Off

“It felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders and maybe it was through writing this album”

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If you’ll bear with a shaky hypothesis for a second, there are really only two types of art. On one side is the art that’s inward-looking, the kind that reads at worst as a maudlin confessional about that time you had a bad date and, at best, as a diary of how the world has interacted with you and all the damage and good it’s done. The other is reflective, more about how you see the world than how the world sees you. Good artists are typically masters of one or the other, either better at holding up or looking in the mirror.

Tell Me How You Really Feel, Courtney Barnett’s follow-up to 2015’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, shows an artist adept at both. Where Sometimes told George Saunders–like stories about suicidal young men and the doldrums of gentrification, Tell Me has Barnett looking you right in the eye and confessing her anxieties and angers. “I feel like it’s kind of a cliché, but a lot of stuff was going on from ages 27 to thirty for me,” says Barnett, who turned thirty in November 2017. “It felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders and maybe it was through writing this album.”

Barnett is introspective with a desert-dry sense of humor, but calling her shy unfairly discounts her native Australian warmth. She grew up in Sydney before moving to Hobart, the capital of Tasmania, where the attended art school. Next came several years on the garage rock circuit in Melbourne, but it wasn’t until Barnett released the track “Avant Gardener” in 2013 that she started making waves across the Pacific. Sometimes, Barnett’s critically acclaimed 2015 album, was her formal introduction as a bonafide indie rock doyenne.

Save for the casually excellent collaborative album Lotta Sea Lice she recorded with former War on Drugs frontman Kurt Vile, Barnett has been quiet, releasing only a few singles (“How to Boil an Egg,” the infectiously catchy “Three Packs a Day”) and touring with her wife, Jen Cloher, herself a fixture in Australia’s DIY scene. Follow-up albums — especially when you’re coming off something as beloved as Sometimes — can be overwrought affairs, with artists looking to bottle whatever intangibles made for a great album in the first place.

Overthinking is not one of Tell Me’s flaws. There are moments on the album when it seems like Barnett is writing more for catharsis than composition, something she admits freely when asked about her headspace in constructing such a direct record. “I sat down and kind of wrote without a strong idea or narrative in mind. I just kind of flailed around, really,” Barnett says. “I kind of have to get that out of the way to get to the good stuff.”

But Tell Me is the rare record that gets the blend of personal and accessible just right. The stories and advice that stud the entire album feel like they’re coming directly from Barnett. When she sings “Friends treat you like a stranger and/Strangers treat you like their best friend, oh well” on “City Looks Pretty,” you can feel the weight of fame alongside her. It’s heavy. It drags. This isn’t a third-person diagnosis of some stand-in character, this is Courtney Barnett laid bare and telling you this is what her world looks like.

She continues to mine catholic issues like misogyny, impostor syndrome, and loneliness throughout the rest of the record, sometimes with startling directness. “Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Self-Confidence” is about, well, crippling self-doubt and a general lack of self-confidence, something that Barnett dealt with after the success of Sometimes. “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch” begins with Barnett deadpanning those exact words over a thicket of feedback before it crashes into a swampy grunge rock.

As much as those tracks provide personal expository details on Barnett’s post-fame journey, it’s on “Nameless, Faceless” that she makes a universal statement of contemporary issues. The song’s backstory is well-known by now: After Sometimes dropped in 2015, a petulant commenter said of Barnett’s songwriting that he “could eat a bowl of alphabet soup and spit out better words than you.” She responded by writing a withering comeback set to a buoyant guitar riff, a cheery song that belies its weariness of a world dominated by petulant twerps squawking anonymously. “You sit alone at home in the darkness/With all the pent-up rage that you harness/I’m real sorry/’Bout whatever happened to you.”

Barnett decided to set her view of the world to music, and much of Tell Me sounds as if she meant this to be a personal cleansing ritual. But she doesn’t want its personal narrative to refract its impact on others. “If the album is completely for yourself you would keep it to yourself, you know?” she says. “I want it to have benefits for someone else to listen, or to share in the stories, or the misery, or the happiness.” 

Courtney Barnett plays the Music Hall of Williamsburg on Saturday, May 19

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