Courtney Barnett Shows the Beauty of Uncertainty on Her Sophomore LP 'Tell Me How You Really Feel'
    • TUESDAY, MAY 22, 2018

    • Posted by: Elissa Fertig

    Ever since those first two EPs, I've Got a Friend Called Emily Rose and How to Carve a Carrot Into A Rose, Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett has been writing indie rock tunes that too often sound like happy accidents. Don't get me wrong--I'm pleased they happened--but she has been widely lauded as a teller of ridiculous tales, and they don't often sound purposeful. "Every time I write a song, I feel like it pops out of me like a mistake," she said in a New York Times article in 2015, right after releasing her debut Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit. And based upon most of what she writes about--single, mundane moments like house-hunting on a budget and roadkill--you can hear the candid truth of that statement.

    Tell Me How You Really Feel, Barnett's sophomore LP that was released this past Friday May 18th, feels ever-so-slightly more purposeful. She even sings repeatedly on the chorus of the seventh track, "I don't know, I don't know anything / I don't know, I don't know anything", a track that happens to be called "Crippling Self-Doubt And A General Lack of Self Confidence", so you'd think this wouldn't be the case. But through a whirlwind of breathy backbeat and ballooning, psychedelia-infused guitar melody, she manages to sound like she really knows that she has no f*cking clue what she's doing. And if that's not the most comforting thing you've heard all day then I want whatever you're on.

    In the public eye and on her records, too, Barnett comes off as shy. In an interview with The Fader this past March, Barnett admits that she refused to meet her partner Jen Cloher's friends in the early stages of her relationship, and in that same interview, she muses about how little she really knows or is confident about--and how all of her music up until now has been a lead-up to that, a psychological study and interest in others that was just a veiled curiosity of the way she felt about herself. If before, she was writing about swimming lanes and roadside garbage, now she's writing about how, "You got a lot on your mind / You know that half the time/ It's only half as true/ Don't let it swallow you". And she freely admits that the "you" is self-referential.

    And so while most of her music and life philosophy has existed in this ambivalent space, swinging freely from ‘60s psych-rock to modern day indie-folk, Tell Me does not just exist in this space, but truly owns it. Not only does the whole album feel like a more cohesive whole, but it strips away a lot of the bullshit. Part of what was fun about Sometimes I Just Sit were the ridiculous stories, but part of what came with that fun was a certain amount of deception, deception Courtney herself doesn't always realize she's participating in. An interview with Vice reveals Barnett talking about how she didn't even realize she could be so timid and apologetic in her own life, and that the track "Charity" is about that. "It's so strange being so unaware of something and then all of a sudden realizing what it is." That being said, the song has a sunny, poppy chorus that sings "You must be having so much fun / Everything's amazing" followed after a crunchy guitar melody by "I'm so subservient I make myself sick".

    Certainly there's pros and cons to writing an album about how you don't know what you're doing. Most of the time, Barnett sounds resigned and not terribly unhappy about the fact that she has no clue what's going on, but sometimes it rings hollow. "Help Your Self" is a stab at positivity that falls desperately short as a rolling guitar seems to build up to a chorus that never really delivers, and the attempt at happiness culminates with, "You got a lot on your plate / Don't let it go to waste / Humble but hungry, need validation", which isn't the most cheerful line you could go for. Here it seems like, while Barnett foregoes absurd storytelling for gritty introspection, it occasionally falls flat, leaving you to look into the wide expanse that she's created for only to stare blankly--there ain't much there.

    But for the most part, the low parts still get you hyped up. While the record starts out in a relatively low place--"Hopefulessness" listens just about as convoluted as it sounds, and is one of the darker tracks on the album--it finishes with "Sunday Roast", a smooth, slow-burning ditty about loving your friends. There are certainly pit stops along the way: "I'm Not Your Mother, I'm Not Your Bitch" is about as angry as Barnett gets, not quite spittingly mad but certainly getting there, and "Nameless, Faceless" laconically sings that Margaret Atwood quote, "Men are scared that women will laugh at them / Women are scared that men will kill them".

    But by the end of this album, you feel like Barnett must have felt after she'd recorded that last verse, and finally wrapped it up. Cathartic. If being a singer-songwriter is about authenticity and owning your creative process, more power to you. But if it's about not always understanding that process and figuring it along the way, that's just as good. And clearly, Barnett isn't opposed to it either. Tell Me How You Really Feel won't solve your worries, no. But you know what they say: admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery. And the admission is pretty fun to listen to.

    Tell Me How You Really Feel is out now via Mom + Pop/Milk!/Marathon Artists Records.

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