“Somewhere in the purgatory of poetry”
A review of Courtney Barnett’s “Tell Me How You Really Feel”
Courtney Barnett has the enviable talent of writing songs which, for all their affect and feeling, have the impact of a good short story — they give you more on multiple listens, are imbued with infectious rhythm, and delightfully encompass those special contained moments which warrant listening to again and again. Barnett’s lyrics reside somewhere in the purgatory of poetry, spoken-word and punk/folk songwriting; her debut album Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit was packed full of songs which lingered around small, real-time moments. The album varied from tracks about trying to impress someone while swimming, to a play-by-play of going into anaphylactic shock. Barnett’s debut existed for the minute — sometimes boring — realities of human existence.
Her follow-up album, Tell Me How You Really Feel has been met with a certain amount of nostalgic longing for these detailed moments. Certainly, Tell Me has a tendency to stride in the direction of broader themes, but these themes are, in themselves, a part of Barnett’s persona. Her songs regularly see her grappling with the dichotomy of her personal life — with its specific problems and anxieties — and the impossibility of separating these from the capital I Issues. ‘Dead Fox’, a track from Sometimes, sees Barnett get elbow-deep in a plethora of environmental quandaries, opening with: ‘Jen insists that we buy organic vegetables/And I must admit that I was a little sceptical at first/A little pesticide can’t hurt’; these modern dilemmas are never far-removed from Barnett’s own life choices. ‘Depreston’ documented the mundanities of house-hunting whilst sweepingly acknowledging an ever-prominent gentrification, Barnett sings ‘We don’t have to be around all these coffee shops/Now we’ve got that percolator, never made a latte greater/I’m saving twenty-three dollars a week’. Certainly, Barnett could never be accused of falling into the trappings of fellow indie favourites (like Father John Misty), whose songs sometimes verge on ambling lyrical lectures, instead she characterises herself as an equal participant in these worldly moral struggles; this particular cog in the machine just happens to write songs about the condition of such a position.
Tell Me differs from her debut in a few ways; it sounds closer to the emotional soundtrack of a story, than the telling of the story itself. Some may miss the satisfying arc of tracks like ‘Elevator Operator’ but here Barnett is offering something different. Gone is the detachment of both her previous album and EP (A Sea of Split Peas), instead we feel as if we have been allowed to read her diary — on ‘Walkin’ on Eggshells’ she admits ‘I don’t wanna hurt your feelings/ so I say nothing’. It’s not a work of intricate lyrical weaving of the kind Barnett has become known for, but it’s deeply empathetic and highly relatable — who hasn’t been in this position? This album sounds different too, certainly earworm choruses aren’t entirely missing with singles like ‘Nameless/Faceless’, but the overall effect of the album is more ragged, there’s a notable punk edge. On ‘I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch’ we hear Barnett get a bit snarly, compare it to the sometimes monotone drawl of her previous songs and the emotion which bleeds into these new tracks is palpable.
Perhaps there are times Tell Me verges on disappointing (for an album weighted with such high expectations); a seasoned Barnett fan may have been a little downtrodden to hear the somewhat weak opening line ‘You know what they say/No one’s born to hate’. It doesn’t sound as clichéd as it might — dressed down with a persistent lingering guitar, Barnett’s voice breaks with an eerie clarity — still, there’s a niggling feeling that she could’ve delivered more. There are a few moments like this on Barnett’s new album; lyrics are sparser, they hover around feelings without detail. The combination of grungier music and abstract lyrics makes me wonder if it could be considered (by a few strokes) less accessible than Sometimes.
Expectation is, in itself, one of the anxieties that riddles Barnett from the start to the end on this album. The jump from writing your first album as an only moderately known artist, to writing your second as a beloved indie name must be huge. One might even wonder if Lotta Sea Lice — the 2017 album which saw Barnett pair up with the indie lo-fi fiend Kurt Vile — was a kind of procrastination, albeit a in a very productive form. Lotta Sea Lice is a nice listen (and God knows Vile could out-drawl even Jimmy Stewart) but the tone is so strikingly different to Tell Me, particularly when you consider that — in writing terms — it was released not that long before. Lotta Sea Lice is co-written with Vile, yet it’s hard to believe Barnett’s lyrical input came from anywhere near the same headspace as the lyrics featured on Tell Me.
This considered, it is unsurprising that Barnett has declared this album to be the hardest thing she’s ever written. The drawn-out writing experience can almost be felt throughout Tell Me; though the tone is cohesive there’s something stop/start about the move between tracks — openings of static and feedback give the effect of someone getting chocked up. Barnett’s honesty is really what gives this album its bite, on ‘Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Self-Confidence’ (perhaps the world’s most relatable song title) the lyrics are almost entirely flooded with Barnett’s admissions: ‘I don’t know, I don’t know anything/ I don’t owe, I don’t owe anything’ — if that’s not gutsy, I don’t know what is.
When it comes down to it, Tell Me How You Really Feel marks far more than just a vague change in style. It’s an inward reflection on Barnett’s own emotional landscape — from the nets of larger issues, to the complexity of relationships; it’s about loneliness and the trials of making time for loved ones. Tell Me ends with the track ‘Sunday Roast’ — as songs go it’s the calm after the storm. All rage has left by the time Barnett tenderly sings ‘Keep on keepin’ on, y’know you’re not alone/ And I know all your stories but I’ll listen to them again’. So much more than a love song, ‘Sunday Roast’ displays generosity, a purposeful kindness given with a concerted effort. It certainly makes for a nice bookend to this album, but doubtless, there are more stories to come.