A house in Preston: Courtney Barnett and the ghost of Raymond Carver
The Grammys are about three weeks away, and I think there’s one slam dunk.
In the category of Best Song Posing as a Raymond Carver Short Story, Courtney Barnett’s “Depreston” takes home the trophy in a landslide that wipes out all other California bungalows in the cul-de-sac.
There are plenty of great moments, melodies, phrases, notes and stories on “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit,” the debut album that earned her a Best New Artist nomination. But this song stands on its own. Barnett’s languid vocals over a ambling guitar pattern and brushed drum beat perfectly set the scene for the story about to unfold.
And the story is about nothing more exciting than shopping for a house.
“You said we should look out further. I guess it wouldn’t hurt us. We don’t have to be around all these coffee shops.”
Don’t forget, with that new percolator, she’s saving $23 a week, so yeah, makes sense.
And so they head out to Preston, where the lyrics weave back and forth between the narrator’s observations and the real estate agent’s gloss. The only real drama is an arrest they witness, but it’s treated in passing.
Listening to Barnett’s depiction, how easy it is to draw parallels to Raymond Carver’s minimalist stories. I was reminded of the car-selling story “Are These Actual Miles?”
His was a singular voice, easy to imitate but hard to get right. Barnett essentially denied in an interview that Carver was an inspiration. “I haven’t actually read him, but I’ve heard of him because my partner loves him.” Believe that or don’t. Either way, she shows her command of that voice in how she depicts the house itself.
“I see the handrail in the shower, a collection of those canisters for coffee tea and flour and a photo of a young man in a van in Vietnam.”
And like any homebuyer, she wonders what the woman who is selling this house bought it for. References to motive and to an unknown past life, those canisters and that photo, imbue the house with a meaning that Barnett carefully declines to depict head on, letting the listener fill in the gaps. Like Carver’s stories, it hints at something profound without carrying the reader over that river.
A song like “Depreston” resonates with loss, bridging generations, lives and families. Old lives are lost or forgotten, but the house and its artifacts remain, as new families move in and the residents ignore or actively destroy what came before.
“If you got a / spare half a million / you could knock it down / and start rebuilding.”
The performance on “The Tonight Show” (above) is a touchingly sparse arrangement, just Barnett and a guitar. The original gently wraps the story in additional musical layers.