Courtney Barnett's New Album Blends Forceful Guitar With Lyrical Complexity

May 22, 2018
Originally published on May 29, 2018 11:16 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of Courtney Barnett's new album, "Tell Me How You Really Feel." Barnett is a 30-year-old singer-songwriter from Australia who received rave reviews for her 2015 debut album, "Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit." Ken says the new album fulfills the promise of her debut.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CITY LOOKS PRETTY")

COURTNEY BARNETT: (Singing) The city looks pretty when you've been indoors. For 23 days, I've ignored all your phone calls. Everyone's waiting when you get back home. They don't know where you've been, why you've gone so long.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: On her debut album a couple of years ago, Courtney Barnett presented herself as the sort of withdrawn artistic type who sits in a corner at a party, alternately shy or making savage jokes about the guests. On her new album, "Tell Me How You Really Feel," there's an implicit acknowledgement that her new popularity has necessitated a more public life. And on a song called "Help Your Self," Barnett is so good, she can distill everything I just said to the five words that form this chorus. Humble but hungry, need validation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELP YOUR SELF")

BARNETT: (Singing) Darkness depends on where you're standing. Jump the creek and watch the sunshine swim. You found inner peace in the inner northeast. Got a momentary bend. Give me dreams, upstream, low dantian screaming. You've got you learn your place. Don't let it go to waste. Humble but hungry, need validation.

TUCKER: As an out gay woman, Barnett has been outspoken on issues including marriage equality and domestic abuse. On the song "Nameless, Faceless," she addresses male rage, picking up on this quote by the novelist Margaret Atwood, "men are scared that women will laugh at them. Women are scared that men will kill them." Barnett folds those words into this song along with her own take on various manifestations of misogyny.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NAMELESS, FACELESS")

BARNETT: (Singing) Don't you have anything better to do? I wish that someone could hug you - must be lonely being angry, feeling overlooked. You sit alone at home in the darkness with all the pent-up rage that you harnessed. I'm real sorry about whatever happened to you. I want to walk through the park in the dark. Men are scared that women will laugh at them. I want to walk through the park in the dark. Women are scared that men will kill them. I hold my keys between my fingers. He said...

TUCKER: The success of Barnett's debut album seems to have taken her aback somewhat. She feels some pressure. In recent interviews, she's admitted to writer's block during the composition of these new songs. That situation has inspired another of her trademark long song titles. This one is called "Crippling Self Doubt And A General Lack Of Confidence." I hope she realizes she struck gold with that one because critics and other writers love self-punishing phrases like that. It helps, of course, that she's made good music out of those words. "Crippling Self Doubt And A General Lack Of Confidence" also features background vocals by Kim and Kelley Deal from the feminist American rock band The Breeders, an influence on Barnett.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRIPPLING SELF DOUBT AND A GENERAL LACK OF CONFIDENCE")

BARNETT: (Singing) Yeah, they say whoever pays the piper calls the tune. Oh, let's avoid the truth, make you all feel special. And your desperation stinks. I can smell it on your breath. A sudden absolute anosmic, got yourself to blame for this. Tell me how you really feel. I don't know, I don't know anything. I don't know, I don't know anything. I don't know, I don't know anything. I don't know, I don't know anything.

TUCKER: Did you notice Barnett's guitar playing there? She's really good in a forceful, punk rock manner. It took me a few listens to another song called "Charity" to realize what it reminded me of, the way Lou Reed's records in the 1980s sounded. On "Charity," she's got something of Reed's vocal phrasing and a bit of Robert Quine's slash-and-burn style with her guitar.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHARITY")

BARNETT: (Singing). At the end of every season, I'm spent up. Keep thinking this will be the one. Hesitation lingers till I'm unreasonable, as if you care. I know you've got your own stuff going on.

TUCKER: The new songs sound like inner monologues shaped and sharpened for public consumption. Barnett undoubtedly wants her album title to be taken in two ways, sincere interest, tell me how you really feel, and eye-rolling sarcasm, tell me how you really feel. It's not ambivalence, it's complexity. It's not self-absorption, it's articulating what's inside her that she knows is also inside of you.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed the album "Tell Me How You Really Feel" by the Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett. Coming up, John Powers reviews the new TV series "The Split" about a family practicing family law. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.