Courtney Barnett drops her third album in as many years – here’s how we really feel about it
“You know what they say, no-one’s born to hate,” Courtney Barnett sings over a shaking, downtuned guitar line with rumbling didgeridoo-like bass on album opener Hopefulnessness.
The ideal place to start, then, in looking at Barnett’s second solo record Tell Me How You Really Feel. It’s an album full of what seem like deeply personal lyrics at times, but never gets weighed down by baggage.
A bright and breezy tone characterises the record, and there’s a sort of hopeful optimism that carries through Barnett’s voice. It certainly seems less tautly-wound than her solo debut Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. There’s little that repeats Pedestrian At Best’s sawing, monomaniacal riff and rapid vocal delivery from that album.
That’s not to say that Tell Me How You Really Feel doesn’t have its dark moments. But, to paraphrase the great philosopher Dolly Parton, you can’t have a rainbow without enduring the rain. Everything seems terrible right now, Barnett seems to be entoning, but it won’t last forever, I promise.
Barnett really does prove time and again that she’s a talented, witty songwriter, and the undisputed queen of the effortlessly cool rhyming couplet. “The city takes pity on your injured soul, and heavenly prose ain’t enough good to fill that hole,” she conjures on the tuneful ray of sunshine City Looks Pretty. With hypnotic, wavering bass and motoric, jangling downpicked guitar, it begins peppy and smiling before slowing and blunting pleasantly after realising just how wasted it is.
It’s not all weed-soaked slacker navel gazing like the outro of City Looks Pretty, however. Charity is tight and economic, Barnett’s voice high and poppy with hookish guitar lines dragging her lyrical barbs into even sharper focus. It eventually washes out as genuinely optimistic: “You don’t have to pretend you’re not scared, everyone else is just as terrified as you”. Barnett doesn’t pretend that life is perfect, or that she has all of the solutions to life’s problems. Sometimes we don’t need that, we just need someone to understand, and Barnett nails that tone.
Need A Little Time meanwhile is more of a slacker anthem, Barnett mumbling into the microphone before a fuzzy chorus elevates her voice into higher registers. The Kim Deal-featuring single Nameless, Faceless is also definitely a highlight. Barnett’s distorted vocal whispers sweetly into your ears with lyrics like, “You sit alone at home in the darkness, with all of the pent-up rage that you harness”. Her vocal mirrors verse’s bassline, creating the same careening, soaring effect as the song’s half-step chord changes. It’s a dark tale about the constant worry of assault, with the sweet, easy-to-swallow melodies of Deal sugaring the pills.
The influences on the record are wide-ranging, and ensure the album is anything but monotone. Barnett shows her teeth more overtly on I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch, an angry rant with atonal In Utero-esque guitar lines.
Crippling Self Doubt And A General Lack Of Confidence’s wah-wah textures come on like Pavement, while Help Your Self, with its restrained Television-inspired staccato riffs, rollercoaster vocal and simple beat recalls Talking Heads. Until a wildly fuzzed-out, lo-fi solo has Barnett closing the track in face-melting style, of course.
Tell Me How You Really Feel is the sort of album you can flip over and put straight back on. Although lyrically covering a lot of ground, it carries with it the effortless vibe of a West Coast summer. And we need that sort of thing every once in a while.
For fans of: Kurt Vile, Pavement, Liz Phair
Standout tracks: City Looks Pretty; Nameless, Faceless; Help Your Self