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Courtney Barnett - MTV Unplugged Live in Melbourne Music Album Reviews

The Australian singer-songwriter uses the Unplugged format as a showcase for the community of musicians she’s cultivated. 

Courtney Barnett has made her discomfort with pedestals clear. Even as the music press has heralded her as an icon, a wunderkind, the voice of a generation, she’s always worked to foster a second, quieter reputation as a humble collaborator. Fittingly, her appearance on MTV Unplugged functions not as a career retrospective, but a showcase for the community she’s cultivated. Of the eight songs in this set, only four see Barnett performing her own songs solo. Her focus remains fixed on the friends and artists who inspire her, providing powerful context for her creative mission.


Take, for instance, “Nameless, Faceless.” In the song’s original iteration, on 2018’s Tell Me How You Really Feel, Barnett delivered glib verses with her tongue pressed firmly against her cheek—a jarring juxtaposition against the chorus’s dead-serious threats of rape and femicide. In this performance, Barnett enlists friend and labelmate Evelyn Ida Morris as a duet partner, slows the arrangement to a crawl, and adds a chilling piano line. These adjustments don’t elevate the track as much as clarify its purpose. As the piano descends its minor scale, the impotent internet trolls of the verses mutate, by the chorus, into material threats to women’s lives. The addition of Morris’ voice steels Barnett’s own, turning the song’s wry spin on an Atwood quote into a sincere expression of collective fear.

Equally revelatory is a cover of “Charcoal Lane,” the title track from the debut solo album of indigenous Australian singer-songwriter Archie Roach. It’s a near-certainty that Barnett’s North American fans are unfamiliar with Roach, best known for his 1990 single “Took the Children Away.” As infants, Roach and tens of thousands of aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families and placed in orphanages. Many were physically and sexually abused, and many more, including Roach, struggled with mental illness, poverty, and addiction. Dueting on “Charcoal Lane” with Paul Kelly, a longtime friend and creative partner of Roach, Barnett pays tribute to Roach while placing her own success on the same map as his suffering.

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When Barnett performs alone, it’s clear she’s put great care into rearranging these songs for the Unplugged format. Each song gets an update that foregrounds some previously buried quality—like the low hum of camaraderie that warms “Sunday Roast,” or the bouncy violins that lighten the medical emergency of “Avant Gardener.” These renditions are distinct enough from Barnett’s well-loved recordings that fans will no doubt return to them. On the unreleased song “Untitled (Play It On Repeat),” Barnett’s voice cracks to engaging, expressive effect, but on “Not Only I,” a duet with New Zealand crooner Marlon Williams, she’s a poor match against his buttery baritone.

One musician who does complement Barnett’s gifts as both singer and songwriter is Leonard Cohen. Her set’s closer, a jubilant “So Long, Marianne,” places her voice in a nest of other voices, backing her up in soft harmony as she bids her audience adieu. When the time comes to say goodbye, when the pedestal crumbles and the bulbs in the spotlight burn out, she’ll be fine. She’ll be among friends.


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