Melodic explorations and massive growth
The opening moments of Courtney Barnett’s latest record, Tell Me How You Really Feel, sound like the ruminations of an artist in a stage of unadorned curiosity. The opening track, “Hopefulessness,” shows off both Barnett’s incredible songwriting chops, but also displays a newfound appreciation for space, timing and sonic textures. On her previous releases, the music itself was pretty straightforward: guitar-driven rock songs centered on self-deprecating narratives. But on this record, Barnett has embraced experimentation in ways that are both very obvious and very subtle. She’s tapping into more melodic explorations and denser song structures. There’s the sound of a whistling kettle on this opening track, for instance, some delectable time changes on later tracks, and some killer lines (“Absolut anosmic,” for one)—all of which signal a massive period of growth for the Australian singer-songwriter.
Barnett made an immediate impression with her official debut, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit in 2015, building on the cult following she had established with a string of EPs, which were self-released on her Milk! Records label. She was nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy award in 2016 and joined forces with Kurt Vile for a collaborative album, Lotta Sea Lice in 2017. Tell Me How You Really Feel feels like a logical next step for Barnett, in that the songs on this album sound more focused, more personal, and more developed than her past work. There’s even a slight Kurt Vile vibe to some of the songs (check out “Sunday Roast”).
“Hopefulessness” opens the album with a grunge-infused slow build, a fresh taste of Barnett’s new material. “You know it’s okay to have a bad day,” sings Barnett, and here (as on several other spots on the album), it feels like Barnett is talking directly to the listener. Delivered in her trademark Aussie twang, her lyrics here are more piercing than ever. The album’s third single, “City Looks Pretty,” reflects on perspective shifts and the difficulties we encounter when maintaining personal relationships. In theme with the album’s title, Barnett reflects: “you never say what you mean.”
This album’s focal point is perhaps its two lead singles, “Nameless, Faceless” and “Need A Little Time,” which were released a month apart. “Need A Little Time” is loose and jangly, and sees Barnett in the process of understanding herself and the loved ones around her. “Nameless, Faceless,” on the other hand, is edgier and tackles misogyny and gender disparities head-on. With a chorus paraphrasing the Margaret Atwood quote “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid that men will kill them,” Barnett describes the fear of walking through a park at night and wonders what is behind the hatred and violence.
At this point in the album, it sounds as though Barnett is really hitting her stride. The production is polished, the instrumentation tight and Barnett plays like she has a lot to say. Aside from some relatively lackluster tracks on its back half, Tell Me How You Really Feel is a sharp sophomore effort—a tough act to pull off considering Barnett’s debut album and its immense success.