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Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Courtney Barnett - Tell Me How You Really Feel Music Album Reviews

Courtney Barnett - Tell Me How You Really Feel Music Album Reviews
Courtney Barnett’s second album is smaller, more introverted than her debut. It’s tentative but with a purpose, songs about what it means to not have—or need—the right words for everything.


The most Courtney Barnett line on Courtney Barnett’s second album is a quote from an online troll. “He said, ‘I could eat a bowl of alphabet soup and spit out better words than you,’” she recalls, on “Nameless Faceless,” and then offers an uncharacteristically cocksure response in a shruggy sing-song: “But you didn’t.” The anonymous critic’s putdown assumes that Barnett’s witty early EPs and debut album cemented her style, making it ripe for parody. Abandoning social realism and polysyllabic razzle-dazzle, Tell Me How You Really Feel in fact overhauls almost everything we’ve come to expect from Barnett as a writer while vindicating everything she promised of herself on her 2015 debut LP: “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you.”

On Tell Me, Barnett repeatedly flails at the question of what a Courtney Barnett line would be anyway: What kind of bargain does a songwriter strike with her audience? “I don’t know a lot about you but/You seem to know a lot about me,” she sings, perturbed, on “Need a Little Time.” What does she have to say and should she even say it? “Indecision rots like a bag of last week’s meat” on a song called “Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence.” She vacillates between despair and self-loathing, living on nerves and feelings. Introspection becomes claustrophobia, the kind where you want to unzip your skin, clamber out, and shake your self off like a wet dog. The palpable discomfort could come off as Barnett complaining about her modest fame if her low-key personality didn’t make evident precisely how much she’d abhor that idea. It’s more essential than that: Courtney Barnett is tentative about how to be in the world, full stop.

Fortunately, her crisis of confidence isn’t reflected in the music: Tell Me is adventurous and nuanced; shapelier than its rabid greyhound predecessor, making Barnett’s game, punky guitar a key part of the storytelling rather than kindling for the engine. She can still go neck-and-neck with Stephen Malkmus when it comes to hangdog indie-rock triumphalism, but her playing now tells stories of tenderness and frustration, too.

The country lockstep of guitar and rickety piano at the end of “Walkin’ on Eggshells” feels like being carried along by a creature much bigger than you, and then placed, safely, at your destination. “Help Your Self,” in which Barnett seems to admire a customer much cooler than her, starts in a meditative fashion, her long, sinewy guitar purrs evoking breathing exercises as she tries to channel this person’s chill. It doesn’t work, and she lets her frustration erupt into extremely satisfying absurdity: “You got a lot on your mind/ You know that half the time/It’s only half as true/Don’t let it swallow you,” she sings. But as she repeats the refrain, it sounds as if she’s saying, “It’s only half a strudel/Don’t let it swallow you!” just as the guitar goes knees-first-through-the-mud bananas. It’s sweet, silly relief: Who’d be consumed by half a pastry?

Considering that Barnett squeezed the word “pseudoephedrine” into her debut single, the linguistic treats on Tell Me come in smaller, subtler nuggets. There’s confidence and elegance to the paring down (and maybe a smart long view, too, unburdening herself of her reputation as rock’s quirkiest chronicler). She conjures in an image what previously took a small parable. Compare the debut’s “Elevator Operator”—a picaresque story about a kid called Oliver who sacks off work to admire the view from a skyscraper rooftop—with this line from “Need a Little Time,” a terse study in caution and release: “Shave your head to see how it feels/Emotionally it’s not that different/But to the hand it’s beautiful.” In that vein, she preserves moments of secret meaning: What exactly is your “innermost lecherous,” a phrase she coins for the grist listeners demand from songwriters? And what’s an “absolute anosmic”? These seeds of cryptic potency develop her own private language.

But for now, Barnett’s inability to express herself is the album’s main theme, and it’s a strange, almost meta proposition: a 30-year-old artist lauded as one of the most gifted songwriters of her generation who’s convinced, on just her second album, that she’s a false prophet. If her debut’s “Pedestrian at Best” sounded like the fierce thrash of In Utero, Tell Me shudders with its malign spirit. Barnett’s introspective outlook also allows her to test the limits of songwriting, from the cliché to the confessional. “City Looks Pretty” contains one of the record’s blandest choruses—“Sometimes I get sad/It’s not all that bad”—but it’s chased by a line that makes that drab couplet seem knowing rather than feeble: “The city takes pity on your injured soul/And heavenly prose ain’t enough good to fill that hole.” What use is a well-turned phrase in the pit of despair?

Tell Me opens on “Hopefulessness,” one of a few songs that invokes a rhetorical cliché in disbelief. “You know what they say…” Barnett drawls in a faded croak, a tone she maintains throughout the song as it builds to a catastrophic sludgy squall, a clever reflection of numbness. Imagine having the blithe confidence to lean on cliché, she seems to imply, when you mistrust everything that comes out of your mouth. Barnett has a go at coining her own turn of phrase on “Walkin’ on Eggshells,” and it’s a beautiful one: “Before we get started I’ll clean this up/No use drinkin’ from a leakin’ cup,” she sings, trying to hit reset on a destitute argument. But it misfires: “Y’know what I mean? Not really, it seems…” A few lines later, she subverts well-worn terms commonly used to describe pain and swashbuckling adventure to distill her frustration at not being able to get the words out: “Pullin’ teeth, white knucklin’.” These opaque emotions are harder to parse and less immediately easy to love than the anecdotal action of her debut, but they make for a rich album all the same, one that pushes the listener to meet Barnett on her terms. “Don’t stop listening,” she sang on her debut; “Are you listening?” she yowls here.

At the center of Tell Me, Barnett gives the listener no choice but to listen when she adopts an unusually ferocious tone across two consecutive songs. “Nameless, Faceless” paraphrases a Margaret Atwood quote for its grungy chorus: “Men are scared that women will laugh at them/Women are scared that men will kill them.” And “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch” is a roiling tirade that needs little more explanation beyond its title. They’re both visceral, lunging songs, but neither really works—they’re too broad for an artist who excels at minutiae. Both have been described as Barnett addressing the era’s misogyny, and there is something a bit box-ticky about them.

But one of the more refreshing things about Tell Me at large is how uninterested Barnett is in providing any kind of “necessary” commentary at a time when many artists feel duty-bound to address politics in their work: The chorus on the next song, “Cripping Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence,” finds her singing, “I don’t know, I don’t know anything” with breezy relief. There’s courage in admitting her inability to know what to say, though it’s a privileged position—something she alludes to. “Sorta self-righteous, my heart of gold,” she concedes on “Walkin’ on Eggshells,” highlighting the dual bind of being a nervous introvert: the anguish over self-expression coupled with the suspicion that not using your voice is neglectful.

Barnett has often sung about that gap, the one between who she is and who she wants to be. On Tell Me, the gap widens, and those dueling identities become even less clear. It’s complicated. There are no punchlines. In these songs of existential despair, a change in perspective is its own kind of revelation, as is Barnett finding the few good words to describe it.

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