On first listen, Tell Me How You Really Feel, the long-anticipated new album from Australian slacker-rock queen Courtney Barnett couldn’t seem more different from her breakthrough Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. ‘Hopefulessness’, the opening track, is a guitar-led dirge, with Barnett’s flat vocals peering out from behind waves of distorted strumming that reaches an apex in the song’s conclusion. It’s a sharp contrast from her last album’s opener – ‘Elevator Operator’, a sparky, upbeat tune that displayed all the usual qualities we’ve come to expect from Barnett: smart, witty lyrics; intricate guitar riffs; and a knack for catchy melody.
With the next track, ‘City Looks Pretty’, however, we’re back into familiar Barnett territory, as she sings-speaks about day to day mundanities. This classic formula is repeated several times during the album, although there is definitely a sense that, with this album, Barnett released all the best tracks as singles, meaning the remainder of the songs simply don’t measure up. The bouncy rhythms of tracks like ‘City Looks Pretty’ and ‘Charity’ are intercut with heavier tracks, such as the down-tempo ‘Need a Little Time’, in an album that is more introspective.
The album in general has a much darker, more layered sound than her previous work: the guitars are scuzzier, the riffs meatier, with a heightened focus on melody over lyrics. This marks an important development for Barnett, but does seem to detract from the qualities that attracted so many of us to her in the first place: her wicked sense of wordplay, and ability to craft a slick lyric.
To be sure, there are some classic lines to be found on the album: Barnett is particularly adept at ironic juxtaposition (“Meditation just makes you more upset” on ‘Charity’) or canny metaphors (indecision “rots like a bag of last week’s meat” on the punchy ‘Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence’). And, despite a general sense of vulnerability on the album, she’s not afraid to deliver a kiss-off line, like “He said ‘I could eat a bowl of alphabet soup/and spit out better words than you’/but you didn’t” on the incredibly boppy ‘Nameless Faceless’.
‘I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch’, which marks the mid-point of the album, is a significant sonic departure for Barnett, her trademark drawl replaced with something more akin to a sneer. It also marks a turning point for the album, which is front-loaded with catchy tunes. From the mid-point onwards, the tracks become increasingly forgettable, closing out with a bizarre fade-out on ‘Sunday Roast’, which suddenly segues midway through from a rambling track to a sing-along chorus. It’s a choice that doesn’t quite work, but still leaves us looking forward to what Barnett will bring next.
TELL ME HOW YOU REALLY FEEL
Artist: Courtney Barnett. Label: Milk!. Top Tracks: City Looks Pretty; Nameless Faceless. For Fans Of: Kurt Vile; Angel Olsen; Parquet Courts. 37 minutes