When Courtney Barnett announced that her sophomore album, Tell Me How You Really Feel, was coming out this year, she stated the LP would be less meandering than her previous records. This comment raised a few alarm bells. Did this mean that the edgy, witty, and bold songwriting and rollicking indie-rock approach was temporarily (or even permanently) being set aside? The album is different. Barnett’s songwriting is more outward in if’s focus, the music is still edgy but different, and Barnett’s wit hasn’t completely evaporated. But where does it fall within her growing discography that includes two of our all-time favorite records (including one with Kurt Vile) and one memorable double EP? We share our First Impressions.
Courtney Barnett is undoubtedly one of the most impactful lyricists and guitarists of this generation. Her relatable, witty lyrics tend to dabble in the mundane, the ordinary, but never feel like either. Her double EP, A Sea of Split Peas was a classic. Her debut proper LP, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit was a true breakout record. Her collaboration with Kurt Vile was one of the best things we heard all year last year. So it’s no surprise that her latest record, Tell Me How You Really Feel spawned tons of hype and anticipation the moment it was announced.
So, does it live up to that hype? Indeed it does, in a very Courtney Barnett way. Barnett expands on the sound she has established over the last few years and crafted one hell of a record. It starts out with a slow burner of a track, “Hopefulessness”, which turns out to be an exception when the record kicks into a higher gear with “City Looks Pretty”. From there, the album keeps its high energy, and a little bit of grit. From the distorted guitars of “Charity” to the impeccable drumming on “Nameless, Faceless”, Barnett and her band are on fire throughout. Perhaps, the most Courtney Barnett of all Courtney Barnett tracks is “Crippling Self Doubt and A General Lack of Self Confidence”, from its sing-along-ability to it’s blunt honesty and run-on title. I’m a bit of a sucker for a slow closer, and Barnett hits that with “Sunday Roast”, a lovely sweet track that ends the record on a positive note.
Barnett has figured out where her music thrives on Tell Me How You Really Feel. It feels loud and gritty. Her songwriting is still clever as hell. Barnett’s knack for turning the ordinary into extraordinary remains unmatched.
It’s no doubt that Courtney Barnett is probably one of the most genius singer-songwriters out there at the moment and definitely ranks at the top with everyone that has come before her. She’s confident yet fun, and definitely is not afraid to sing about whatever is on her mind (literally). She’s collaborated with Kurt Vile, and we all sung her praises on her debut LP, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit.
Now, with Tell Me How You Really Feel we are seeing Courtney Barnett grow and continue to prove her talent. I personally like her best on her rawest offering, “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch”. We hear of that relationship we wish never would have been involved in and the emotion that goes along with the lyrics – raw and angry.
We are also hearing tracks that move away from inner reflections on “Hopefulessness” and “Nameless, Faceless” which tackles societal issues. “City Looks Pretty” tackles issues that many can relate to with lyrics that include: Sometimes I get mad / It’s not half as bad / Pull yourself together / And just calm down We hear themes of isolation as well as society’s view on others that struggle with depression or isolation.
With Courtney Barnett’s songwriting, she could be considered vulnerable or an open book, yet with each new release we are opened up to a bit more of her heart and soul. We are also hearing new ways for her to tell her stories in regards to her musical style. Tell Me How You Really Feel is definitely a great next chapter for Courtney Barnett and as she continues to release poignant tracks and evolves her sound, we are witnessing a legend begin to unfold. The good news is she’s just getting started.
When Courtney Barnett entered the public eye, we all hoped (some might say knew) we were witnessing the entrance of a new generational talent. She’s confident, clever, and doesn’t take herself too seriously. There’s a lot in the music world that can seem constructed around put-ons, personas, and style. Barnett built her early success around a deadpan, genuine persona and songs about mundane moments turning into insight (“Depreston” from Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit was about seeing houses with a realtor). After a much-loved collaboration with Kurt Vile, Lotta Sea Lice, full of both singer’s flatline deliveries and rambling, quotidian lyrics, I was curious to see what would happen with Barnett’s career. Would she double down on the persona she had cultivated? It doesn’t seem fake or overly built-up, but at the same time I’ve always had a feeling like we were just scratching the surface of what she had to reveal to us.
Now, with Tell Me How You Really Feel, we’re given a moment of payoff for all our faith in Barnett’s talent. The evolution is there. The music peeks into more a post-tonal punk direction at times with sharp, staggering lead guitar lines taking short bursts of attention in the midst of familiar Sometimes I just Sit-era rhythm guitar. Other songs, like “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch” go whole-cloth in a shambling, atonal direction. In this song, we also hear that Barnett’s deadpan delivery has expanded to include lip-curled shouting and a depth and power that’s new and welcome.
Highlights: the conversational, direct-address “Charity,” which features self-conscious lyrics and a sense of desperation. Great, sneaky lead guitar lines throughout. Great lyric: I want to walk in the park in the dark/ Men are scared that women will laugh at them/ I want to walk in the park in the dark/ women are scared that men will kill them in “Nameless, Faceless”. At the end of the album, the genuine sweetness and vulnerability on “Sunday Roast” is a new, incredibly delightful direction. With the raw songwriting skills and a uniqueness that’s impossible to teach, it’s crucial that a songwriter like Courtney Barnett have the depth to grow from release to release. Now we know she definitely does.
When thinking of the current era of great singer-songwriters, Courtney Barnett is at the forefront. Her sharp observations are matched by her sharp tongue, yet everyone who comes across her music can relate to her big and little anecdotes and experiences. In many ways, she is the Seinfeld of music – taking the mundane and the routine and making them larger than life. On Tell Me How You Really Feel, Barnett goes wider screen, not necessarily musically but in terms of storytelling. Whereas many of her past songs focused on her own experiences and the little events that defined her, she tackles bigger issues – or, if you will, sees the forest from the trees – with the same poignancy of her past efforts.
Musically, Barnett adopts a more straightforward indie-rock approach, and the influence of Kurt Vile, with whom she released the terrific Lotta Sea Lice, is evident on tracks like the moody but fantastic “Need A Little Time”, “Help Your Self”, and introspective “Walking on Eggshells”. Barnett, though, showcases a whole different side on opener “Hopelessness” and “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch”. The songs are darker and edgier than anything she’s released before. More importantly, they are Barnett at her most vulnerable. Whereas she made light of her predicament on “Pedestrian At Best”, hints of self-doubt and even angst echo in her voice. It’s a rare “me-against-the-world” attitude from the artist, yet the songs perfectly reflect the chaos and rising anger of the world.
There are some more “typical” Barnett tracks, such as the rocking and immensely poignant “City Looks Pretty” and the tender finale, “Sunday Roast”, where Barnett reminds us that “we’re not alone”. What stands out the most about the record, however, is how Barnett the songwriting is more activist oriented, and “Nameless, Faceless” best demonstrates her transformation. An edgier, more punk-rock vibe is evident on the track, on which Barnett explores fear, anxiety, and isolation. Her lyrics are biting, yet as always hit the mark. The same can be said for Tell Me How You Really Feel, as Barnett has hit the bullseye once again.
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