Courtney Barnett ’s First LP Is A Paradigm Of Passion And Ennui

Courtney Barnett

BROOKLYN – In but a few short years, Australia’s Courtney Barnett has become iconic within the indie under-culture for achieving the nearly unattainable: worldwide visibility and lore in an impossible-to-crack field. This paramount alt-rocker just released her first full-length record, Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, out this week via Milk!/Mom + Pop Records, and the compilation is stopping every single mainstream publication in its tracks.

Critics from The New York Times, Pitchfork and Rolling Stone all agree that, as a musician, Barnett has hit her stride and, as a human, she is affably indifferent, paranormally chill and irresistibly likable not in spite of but precisely for her off kilter self-deprecating tendencies and the soft and nuanced lens through which she views life’s little moments.  (Ed., Best New Bands’ named her Best New Female Artist in its 2014 Newbie Awards.)

Imbedded in Barnett’s songwriting is nothing at all and absolutely everything. She writes about house hunting, lying awake at 3am remembering an immovable love, self doubt and self realization, social anxieties and adapting to or rejecting the constraints of great expectations. On her latest, Barnett is hungry, she is tired, or she’s oversexed and disinterested. She’s dying to impress or she’s bored with caring.

Courtney Barnett picked up the guitar at age 10 and began to brave open-mic nights by 18.

At 20, she moved to Melbourne and began recording her own songs and even set forth a record label (Milk!). Barnett studied art at the University of Tasmania, and though she never obtained her degree she majored in photography, meanwhile beginning what would unfurl into an irrefutably starlit musical career.

Barnett’s eye for the aesthetic permeates her songwriting acutely. In much the same way the photo observer with a trained eye examines a composition, Barnett’s narratives examine life’s subtle details – teasing out their quiet glory and imposing meaning onto the mundane.

In 2012 and 2013, Barnett released two EPs, I’ve Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris and How to Carve A Carrot Into a Rose. One year later, she rolled both those efforts into a single compilation, The Double EP:  A Sea of Split Peas, and it’s then that Barnett started her upward trajectory to the limelight at full tilt.

Of that record, “‘Out Of The Woodwork’ is probably the most meaningful track,” Barnett told Best New Bands. “It probably took the longest to write. I had the chords kicking around for ages but I could never find the right words.” She added, with distinguishing detachment, “I remember I started it after I got home from a Drones gig.”

Now age 27, Barnett has been tirelessly touring the globe. Her first LP is the product of writing in transit, and it is the musician’s most produced and complex accomplishment to date.

On “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party,” a stand-apart track toward the backend of the record, Barnett encapsulates the existential crisis of any 20-something – or, hell, a socially-inclined soul of any age – with the crooning line, “I want to go out / But I want to stay home.” Never has the blight of wading through minute decisioning felt so burdensome, so relatable or so disquieting in its minimalism.

“Pedestrian At Best” elevates the album to harder-hitting vistas than is typical of Courtney Barnett’s style. At first jarring, the track slowly proves to be an all-consuming livewire. “Pedestrian At Best” is a slow-burning madhouse, in which the depths of Barnett’s neuroses demand to be heard. “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you,” she bellows, “Tell me I’m exceptional I promise to exploit you / Give me all your money and I’ll make some origami, honey.”

Meanwhile, “Dead Fox” returns Barnett’s lyrical narration to the quotidian. “Jen insists that we buy organic vegetables, and I must admit that I was a little skeptical at first / A little pesticide can’t hurt,” Barnett shares. Jen is Australian musician Jen Cloher, who Barnett has been romantically devoted to for some four years. The track evokes undertones of The Velvet Underground while effortlessly bopping into domestic bliss (or, realistically, chips away at the chaos that coupling idealistically purports to omit).

When listeners reach the end of Barnett’s latest, one overarching theme is most evident: her angle is an unpretentious one. Rather than serving up a preternatural, prismatic conduit for art imitating life, her observations are candid and blunt. So relatable is her lyricism, in fact, that the listener lays half-claims to Barnett’s streams of consciousness.

In much the same way that a Murakami novel captures the robotic motions of life in undulating poetic prose (I opened the tofu, drained it and set it on the counter, I opened a beer and drank half of it while sitting on the couch, the phone rang), Barnett’s lyricism captures the dynamism of everyday doldrums and instills those ephemeral and unimportant moments with harmonious significance.

Courtney Barnett Album

So what can fans expect next from Courtney Barnett?

Beyond this record, “I’ve kind of written another one,” Barnett said. “And I’m kind of writing the next one. I’m always drawing a lot and making lots of art. We’ll probably tour lots next year with the new album, and I’m going to go to the desert for a sabbatical.”

If Barnett weren’t a musician, she might have given Mother Nature a sizable chunk of her time, she peppered in. “I’d probably do some sort of environmental science or zoology,” she reckoned. Barnett is also an avid consumer of new music. When asked what new groups have caught her attention as of late, Barnett pointed to Total Control and First Aid Kit. “The Teeth & Tongue album is groovy,” she added.

Yet, when the press is beating the drum around a singular persona of the artist – her effortless mystique – it begs the question: how much of the fanfare is contributing to the musician’s self-perception and subsequent production? Perhaps Barnett has audiences wrapped around her littlest finger, drooling over her lyricizing about smoothies. Or, Barnett is genuinely disenchanted with what it means to dabble in metaphors.

“Don’t ask me what I really mean,” Barnett murmurs on “Kim’s Caravan,” the album’s longest, most darkly brewed cut and Barnett’s self-professed favorite. “I am just a reflection of what you really want to see / So take what you want from me,” she concludes without reticence.

Courtney Barnett is one of the artists in our recent 5 New Bands To See On Tour This Spring feature.  For tour dates, go HERE.
Liz Rowley

Liz Rowley

Born in Mexico and raised in Toronto, Jerusalem and Chicago by a pair of journalists, Liz comes to with an inherited love of writing. After discovering a niche for herself in music journalism and radio while at Bates College in Maine, she always keeps a running playlist of new music to soundtrack her place in the world. Liz is passionate about helping dedicated, talented musicians gain the exposure they deserve. A recent transplant to Brooklyn from Hawaii, she is plagued by an incurable case of wanderlust and cursed with an affinity for old maps and old things like typewriters and vintage books. She adores photography and running and is very good with plants. Having come of age in Chicago, Wilco speaks to her soul. If she could be anything, she would be a cat in a Murakami novel.
Liz Rowley