Courtney Barnett does not think twice. No intros, no outros, choruses barely fitting in the margins, owning an acutely in media res poetic timbre. Just her and a sloppy guitar, turning erudite rants into songs. Liz Phair might be the first comparison that comes to mind, but Barnett’s best analogues are much closer to Ghostface Killah, another language addict who’s at his best and funniest when he plays the observer. Unconscious, maybe, but “Scotty Wotty copped it to me, big microphone hippy, hit Poughkeepsie crispy chicken verbs throw up a stone richie” isn't much different than “I must confess I’ve made a mess of what should be a small success but I digress at least I’ve tried my very best I guess.”
For the uninitiated, Courtney Barnett is a songwriter from Melbourne, who first popped up on global radars in 2013 with a double EP called, um, The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas. It turned heads with pinpoint, hilarious assassinations — "I may not be 100 percent happy, but at least I’m not with you" she shrugs at the end of "Don’t Apply Compression Gently." In the traditions of other transcendent lyricists like John Darnielle and Joni Mitchell, Barnett found herself in charge of a growing cult, enough to get her scooped up by Mom + Pop ahead of her debut full-length, Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, which was officially released yesterday.
Barnett has an appreciation for the mundane, or at least the people stuck within it
This past Friday, Barnett had her last stand in Austin, her eighth SXSW performance in four days. The Radio Day Stage, situated on the second floor of the Austin Convention Center, is a literal soundstage packed in between digital marketing lectures, and possibly the saddest venue at the whole festival. (I once saw Mobb Deep perform there in the single most ironic moment in SXSW history.) Dressed in dusky flannel, under a McDonald’s logo, with an inflatable Kangaroo in tow, Barnet spent 35 minutes rocking a trade show.
It actually ended up being a little poignant. Sometimes I Sit and Think’s opener "Elevator Operator" has a yuppie named Paul ripping up his tie on the way to work, resolving instead to lose his mind someplace other than his desk. Barnett has an appreciation for the mundane, or at least the people stuck within it. Those beige, pullaway conference-room walls of the Day Stage suited her anxious inertia. You hear it best in album standout "Depreston," a balmy, ostensibly cozy acoustic ballad about buying a new house deep in the suburbs where everything closes at 9 o'clock. She notices the garden, the roomy garage, relics from the passed-on previous owner, and tries her best not to feel trapped.
But Barnett can also be very funny. The best songs on her record are pumped with a melancholy, painfully honest humor, cast off with the same ancillary flair that informs everything from her guitar playing to her fashion. She describes roadkill as a "possum Jackson Pollock painted on the tar." She refuses to beat around the bush and names a song "Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party." She counts the cracks in her ceiling backwards in French because she’s bored and can’t fall asleep. On the heartbreaking closer "Boxing Day Blues," she sings "I love all of your ideas, you love the idea of me, lover, I’ve got no idea." Even as she stares into the void, Courtney Barnett can’t resist a little antimetabole. She puts a voice to the part of your brain that comes out when it’s quiet and you’re alone — sometimes sitting and thinking, sometimes just sitting.
Of course, in her sets, she sticks to the loud stuff. That’s the thing about Barnett: despite the fact that most of the hype is centered around her lyrics, you’d hardly notice them if your first exposure to her was a live performance. She plays in a fuzzy, day-drunk splatter, the sort of thing garage bands use when they write songs about pizza. Sure, a few people were probably thrown by "Lance Jr." and its "I masturbated to the song you wrote" line, but most were deep in the haze. I guess that’s part of the charm: Barnett has a quintessential indie-rock shrewdness that’s been missing from the scene. She’s wry, but approachable. Always smiling, always enjoying rock ‘n roll, always demolishing barriers even in the least rock 'n' roll space she’ll probably ever play.
a quintessential indie-rock shrewdness that’s been missing from the scene
Barnett’s not one for drama anyway. Unlike the Craig Finns and Nick Caves of the world, you could never imagine her penning a multi-act concept album or writing for Broadway. Barnett seems more content to talk about her friends and peer out the window, the late night, one-take sort of writing that binds together forgotten scenes in fragmented sentences — like if Emily Dickinson wrote pop songs. And like Dickinson, I’m not sure if Barnett cares if the world at large ever realizes how smart she is. She’s got her guitar and her self-run microlabel Milk Records. Sure there’s the whirlwind SXSW press tour, and Pitchfork BNMs, but whatever. She’s here for the tacos.
Sometimes I Sit and Think’s best song might be "Aqua Profonda!" A slim two minutes, Courtney finds herself swimming in a lane next to a handsome young man doing the backstroke. She tries her best to keep up, holding her breath for longer than usual, and overexerts herself. "My lack of athleticism sunk like a stone, like an owner’s home loan." When she comes to, the boy and his towel are both gone. That’s it. That moment that made it onto the album: she rushed home, scribbled it down, and life went on.