Courtney Barnett’s ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’
Three years ago, on her song “Pedestrian at Best”, Courtney Barnett sang, “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you”. Despite her misgivings, nothing could be further from the truth. After much anticipation, Barnett’s debut album Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit was universally acclaimed by critics. It won her a Grammy nomination and legions of fans around the globe. With her second album, the expectations are even higher, but Tell Me How You Really Feel is every bit as good as its predecessor in most respects, and in several key areas it improves on it significantly, proving that Barnett is no flash in the pan. In years to come, there’s every chance this will be seen as a career-defining album, made by one of our most important artists.
The album begins with a low drone. What sounds like a synth is actually a distorted guitar being played with a violin bow. At the same time, a second guitar woozily detunes, yawing down until it joins the other on D flat, then cautiously begins a threadbare, bluesy riff. There is a sharp intake of breath, then the singer softly coos:
Yknow what they say
No one’s born to hate
We learn it somewhere along the way
Take your broken heart
Turn it into art
Can’t take it with you, can’t take it with you
The rhythm section joins in, gently at first, but momentum builds incrementally until the song finally concludes in a dreamy haze of feedback and reverb. After the wash of sound recedes all that remains is the whistle of a boiling kettle, as if to say that, when all else fails, you can always have a cup of tea.
“Hopefulessness” shrugs off any preconceptions Barnett’s listeners may have, sounding like nothing she has done before. Its lyrics touch on injustice, mortality, dysfunction, alienation and self-doubt, all in fewer than 20 lines. There is little evidence of the ironic detachment for which the songwriter is known, setting the tone for what is to come.
“City Looks Pretty” starts off at a brisk pace, sounding like The Velvet Underground or The Modern Lovers as it bustles along. The song appears to talk about the adjustment of coming home after a long trip away.
The city looks pretty when you been indoors
For 23 days I’ve ignored all your phone calls
Everyone’s waiting when you get back home
They don’t know where you been, why you gone so long
Friends treat you like a stranger and
Strangers treat you like their best friend, oh well
This is a familiar story for touring musicians, though it turns out that Barnett began these lyrics long before her career took off. “That song jumps between two time frames: now, and in my early 20s when I lived in Carlton,” Barnett told me recently. “I had really bad depression and I wouldn’t leave my room. [Then] I’d go out on these big walks and have really meaningful conversations with people … Sometimes you can have a deeper conversation with a stranger than the people that are in your life.” The resonance of those old lyrics in her more recent life was a surprise. “I guess you’ve got to trust when it keeps coming back that it’s coming back for some reason, to be heard.”
At times during the long process of writing Tell Me How You Really Feel, Barnett struggled with writer’s block. Listening to the album, however, that seems hard to imagine. These songs are bursting with ideas and her writing has become richer and more varied, both musically and lyrically. If her songwriting was good before, it’s even better now.
The next two tracks are among the album’s strongest. “Charity” describes the isolation the singer feels despite her tremendous career success – or perhaps because of it.
You must be having so much fun
So subservient I make myself sick
Are you listening?
You don’t have to pretend you’re not scared
Everyone else is just as terrified as you
Medication just makes you more upset
I bet you got a lot to prove I know you’re still the same
“Charity” is a rousing pop song despite its downbeat subject matter. It’s followed by the warm embrace of “Need a Little Time”. The protagonist of this song is clearly in a very bad place emotionally, and one verse brought to mind the public meltdowns of Britney Spears and, more recently, Sinéad O’Connor:
Shave your head to see how it feels
Emotionally it’s not that different
But to the hand it’s beautiful
When I asked Barnett if she was referring to Sinéad or someone similar she quickly replied: “No, but I love hearing people’s interpretation of songs, it’s so good!” Nevertheless, the song is about supporting someone who is struggling with their own existence. “Like the comforting friend,” she said. “Comforting someone going through a hard time.”
One major difference between Tell Me How You Really Feel and Sometimes I Sit and Think … is that Barnett has become a far more confident guitarist. The new album is better as a result. For her debut, most of the lead breaks and the musical colour were provided by Dan Luscombe, also of The Drones, who co-produced both albums with Burke Reid. However, Luscombe was unable to play on the album tour so it fell to Barnett to play all of the parts herself, which proved to be a turning point. On Tell Me How You Really Feel, Barnett plays most of the guitar and it sounds more personal as a result. It’s completely her vision now, from top to bottom.
“I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch” is a case in point. It’s the most high-energy track on the new album and Barnett’s heavy riffing is a vital ingredient, taking an explosive, oblique solo in the middle. The lyrics seem to be addressed to her long-time partner, fellow songwriter Jen Cloher. While not specifically denying that in our interview, Barnett also implicated herself: “But also, is it me? Is it not, ‘I’m not your mother, I’m not your bitch, I heard you mutter under your breath.’ Do you know what I mean?” She then went further: “But it’s also flexible – bigger than me and Jen, you know?”
Cloher had been very candid in the songs she wrote for her brilliant self-titled album, released last year, with several of them explicitly delving into her relationship with Barnett, so when I listened to Tell Me How You Really Feel I was half expecting Barnett to present her own side of the story. When I asked her about it, the singer refused to be drawn, only conceding, “I’m sure I kind of touch on stuff. I feel like my album’s more about relationships in general, with those people that are close to you, and [Jen] is definitely one of the main ones.”
The fact is, Barnett likes to write from multiple perspectives to add complexity to her lyrics, which is exactly what is happening in “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch”.
One would think there would be no misunderstanding a song titled “Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence” but the lyrics don’t follow any single train of thought, something we should be used to by now. For mine, the singer appears to be describing an awkward conversation with a record company flunky or, worse, a music critic.
Your opinion means a lot
Well tell me what’s the use?
I never feel as stupid
As when I’m around you
I don’t know, I don’t know anything
I don’t owe, I don’t owe anything
For the choruses, Barnett is joined by Kim and Kelley Deal of The Breeders on backing vocals. Their presence is apt: Barnett had listened to The Breeders’ second album, Last Splash, a lot around the time she was making her first record. The Breeders were a relatively recent discovery for the singer because she was only five when Last Splash came out in 1993. Kim Deal also sings backing vocals on “Nameless, Faceless”, the first single taken from the album.
The self-effacing Barnett finds it difficult having to explain herself and her songs, making album promotion an ordeal for her. At one point in our chat, she burst out, “Ugh! My words today! I’m sorry, I don’t feel like I’ve said anything intelligent.” Not true, of course. Recently, she told an American radio interviewer she even has trouble expressing herself properly to friends in private, and often composes letters to them afterwards, though she never sends them. Some of these songs were directly inspired by unsent missives.
“Walkin’ On Eggshells” is probably my favourite song on the album, although several others have occupied that position and probably will again. This song contains Barnett’s first conventional middle eight, though there is also an instrumental bridge on “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party” on her first album. “I fall into a lot of the same patterns,” she says. “And even though I like those patterns … sometimes it’s, like, ‘Really? Verse-chorus-verse-chorus-verse-double chorus-end? With lots of words? Is that really what you wanna do?’ ” Barnett laughs as she parodies her simple MO. “And that one I loved. It sounds like an old Neil Young song or something, so it felt like it deserved a bit of classic songwriting.” Classic songwriting? I couldn’t have put it better myself: it’s simply gorgeous.
The album closer is also a favourite. “Sunday Roast” was another song Barnett took many years to finish. In fact, the guitar figure was something she wrote for her high-school music class assessment and now, all these years later, its potential has finally been realised, much like its author’s. The song is written about a regular dinner date Barnett and Cloher enjoy with a close circle of friends, with different people taking it in turns to host each week. It’s a powerful, life-affirming story to close the album, with the backing exuberantly modulating to a major key at the finale, fading as Barnett repeats the refrain:
Keep on keepin’ on, yknow you’re not alone
And I know all your stories but I’ll listen to them again
And if you move away yknow I’ll miss your face
It’s all the same to me yknow it’s all the same to me
Courtney Barnett may not express herself easily in conversation but she has a novelist’s eye for detail. The uncompromising honesty with which she approaches her lyrics puts her songs in a class above most of her contemporaries. Her melodies and arrangements are never ostentatious, but there is plenty to delight the ear and capture the imagination. I believe that as a songwriter she already ranks among the best this country has produced. This is not a perfect album, but it’s a great one, and that’s good enough for me.
• DESIGN Semi-Permanent
Carriageworks, Sydney, May 24–26
• VISUAL ART Captured Landscapes
Fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne, May 22–June 2
• THEATRE The Tempest
Home of the Arts, Gold Coast, May 23–26
• VISUAL ART Highland – Min-Woo Bang
Wagner Contemporary, Sydney, until June 12
• BALLET The Merry Widow
Canberra Theatre Centre, May 25–30
Arts Centre, Melbourne, June 7–16
• CLASSICAL Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: In Concert
Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre, May 19
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 19, 2018 as "Centre Courtney". Subscribe here.