Tell Me How You Really Feel – May 18th
In the midst of her breakout year back in 2015 Courtney Barnett once uttered, with wisdom beyond your average twenty-something enjoying success far in excess of their wildest dreams, that “I don’t want to be a rock star, I just want to write better songs”. As a statement it was quintessential Barnett, possessing both a pragmatic sensibility and a succinct profoundness, but in hindsight seems to offer a window into the looming conflict between her unfussy everyperson affability and the glitzy, alien circles she’d go on to find herself in.
After all, she said it before her homeland heroes had started lavishing praise on her – Darren Hanlon likened her to an ambassador for Australian music, while national treasure Paul Kelly (whose ‘To Her Door’, via a high school lyrical dissection exercise, “probably opened up seeing stories in a different way and how they can develop” praised her “Barnettian” worldview). Not to mention how she became both a near-permanent fixture on both the US talk show circuit and Barack Obama’s workout playlist, and quite possibly the first Grammy nominee to express a certain relief at not winning as it meant they got to swerve giving a speech. With all of this to digest among the usual second album jitters it’s little wonder she admitted to finding it a difficult record to make, even with the welcome dual distractions of Kurt Vile collaboration Lotta Sea Lice and wife Jen Cloher’s stunning self-titled record to break up the process. The question was, just what would her next move hold?
Opening track ‘Hopelessfulness’ quickly jettisons the notion of Tell Me How You Really Feel being Sometimes I Sit And Think… redux, swapping the infectious stomp of ‘Elevator Operator’ for something hauntingly reflective. As a long, bending guitar note heralds the album’s inception, Barnett’s voice is soft, distant and contemplative as she weaves between her own stream of consciousness and quotes from Carrie Fisher and Nelson Mandela, the former’s “take your broken heart, and turn it into art” offering something of a mission statement for the rest of the album. “You know it’s okay, to have a bad day’ she sings to herself in reassurance (despite its liberal use of ‘you’ ‘she’ etc Tell Me How You Really Feel is almost exclusively self-addressed rather than aimed at another subject), adding “Just get this one done, then you can move along” either in reference to writer’s block or the logic anyone having a rough time mentally can identify with using to get them to the day’s end.
The skittering, catchy ‘City Looks Pretty’ could easily be read as a scathing critique of intensive touring thanks to its opening line of “the city looks pretty when you’ve been indoors…” were it not written during Barnett’s sharehouse days during her early twenties. It instead acts as a general comment on ennui and rebuilding your life as you come out of the other side and culminates in the self-admonishment of “pull yourself together and just calm down”, a counterpoint to the return to the self-care of the similarly – and deceptively – upbeat ‘Charity’ where over a rolling guitar lick she reminds herself that “Everyone is just as terrified as you.”
With all manner of inner turmoil on display throughout the early stages of Tell Me How You Really Feel, it’s little wonder that the punchy, lilting ‘Need A Little Time’ sees Barnett searching for some space – from herself, from those around her, from anything that might stop her from rediscovering her inner equilibrium. It’s a testament to the emotional investment that the first third of Tell Me How You Really Feel induces that out find yourself truly hoping that she finds it, and offers further proof of her characteristic lyrical deftness as she likens the process to the emotional equivalent of cathartic head-shaving.
The recharged Courtney Barnett that returns, with barely contained raw fury and with fists flying, suggests that that respite and attendant chance to regroup was indeed found. Lead single ‘Nameless, Faceless’ simultaneously offers one of the poppiest melodies that Barnett has ever written and a scathing critique of both toxic masculinity and internet troll culture. There are elements that hint at an underlying empathy – see lines like “I wish that someone would hug you” and “You know you’ve got lots to give, and so many options” – but the blazing Margaret Attwood-quoting chorus and reference to keys nestled between fingers point to an inherent seething annoyance. By contrast, here are no such dualities at play on the sub-two minute blast of incandescence of ‘’I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch’, doubtless the angriest song she’s ever put to tape that ends with her reasoning that “I try my best to be patient” before doubling down and stating emphatically that “but I can only put with so much of that shit.”
That mid-album pair feel like extensions of ‘Pedestrian At Best’ and ‘Small Poppies’, the points on Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit that saw Barnett, in two of the album’s loudest moments, break away from her trademark storytelling to kick out at the expectations imposed on her. Fittingly, the next track on Tell Me How You Really Feel, the Deal sisters-featuring ‘Crippling Self-Doubt And A General Lack Of Confidence’ is the number that feels the closest to something off of her debut. Over chirpy, upbeat musicianship and a dancing, staccato guitar riff Barnett defies the song’s title to sound like someone going at least some way towards being at ease with the fact they don’t have all the answers (via the singalong-ready chorus of “I don’t know anything/I don’t owe anything”) while still finding time to throw in some fantastically grisly imagery (“Indecision rots like a bag of last week’s meat”).
But if the first third of Tell Me How You Really Feel is the sound of someone feeling lost within themselves, and the middle third the sound them airing their frustrations, then its final chapter is that of them taking a giant leap towards peace of mind. The endearingly louche swagger of ‘Help Your Self’ sees Barnett reminding herself of the good things in life, detailing how “you found inner peace in the inner North East” – the record’s solitary reference to Melbourne marks a departure from the landmarks that peppered her debut, highlighting how Tell Me How You Really Feel is a document of her mental landscape as much as its predecessor was that of her geographical environment. While there’s a concession of being “humble but hungry, need validation” it comes from a place of comfortable acceptance rather than that of a furrowed brow, as does the languid conciliatory strum of ‘Walkin’ On Eggshells’ that explores the fine line between speaking your mind for your own sanity and the damage it can have to others.
In Sunday Roast, the record’s saves the ace up its sleeve for its finale. A beautiful slice of warm contentment, it sees a softly-sung celebration of friendship that invites hugs and reassures the subject – one that on this occasion sits outside of the author’s own headspace – of their own importance and the fact that they’re more than holding their own. For all of Barnett’s typecasting as a guitar-toting rocker ‘Sunday Roast’ serves as a reminder that some of her strongest works (‘Anonymous Club’, ‘Depreston’, her vocal contributions on Lotta Sea Lice) come during reflective moments, where the earnestness and sincerity in both her songwriting and own voice come to the fore. As the album closer builds into its euphoric conclusion, it’s at once celebratory and moving; hearing her sing lines such as ‘If you move away, you know I’ll miss your face” brings the record full circle, from her own insecurities at its beginning to acting as the reassuring presence to someone going through similar experiences by its end.
Listening to Courtney Barnett has long been at once like a musical steadying hand on the shoulder and listening to an especially articulate and perceptive friend detail how they’re going through the same stuff as you. It may have taken a different route to its predecessor, but Tell Me How You Really Feel (a title that by album’s end feels like Barnett challenging herself to confront her own feelings) arrives at that same point of comforting, empathetic familiarity through the record’s arc from uncertainty to happiness.
It would have been understandable (and easy) given the last few years to have chosen the specific plight of the touring musician as a template for her second album. The fact that she not only hasn’t, but starkly opened up about her own headspace through her own inherent honesty, has meant she emerges more relatable than ever. Still only two albums in, she’s produced a three-act reflection of the human condition that’s a triumph of candour and honesty from one of the most perpetually engaging and captivating songwriters around.