Courtney Barnett ‘Sometimes I sit and think and sometimes I just sit’ – Review

23 Apr

‘Oliver Paul, 20 years old, full head of hair, worries he’s going bald.’ As opening lines go, that’s a pretty great one. And it’s not the opening line of a novel or short story – it’s the opening line of a pop album. More specifically, Courtney Barnett’s new record ‘Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I just Sit.’ Each song begins in a similarly dynamic and engaging way. How about: “Jen insists that we buy organic vegetables and I must admit that I was a little skeptical at first, a little pesticide can’t hurt” or “I lay awake at four, staring at the wall, counting all the cracks backwards in my best French.” Courtney Barnett knows how to grab your attention, and she’s getting much better at keeping it.

That was the problem with her debut, ‘Sea of Split Peas’ – she grabbed our attention but then let it slip with songs that went on too long, or felt lethargic and undercooked. The fantastic ‘Avant Gardener’ and ‘History Erraser’ aside, there was a lack of depth and focus to the album that made repeated listens a bore. On her new album, Barnett has made a massive and unexpected leap forwards in terms of quality, as well as consistency. The debut had two great songs, ‘Sometimes I Sit and Think…’ has an album’s worth of them. The leap forward is all the more remarkable because Barnett hasn’t re-written the rule book or taken a dramatic left turn – the songs follow a similar template to the one laid out on ‘A Sea of Split Peas’ and they don’t do anything drastically different. It’s just a case that the songwriting is sunnier, the melodies are more memorable, the hooks are stickier and the tunes are more urgent. It’s the kind of leap Radiohead made from ‘Pablo Honey’ to ‘The Bends’.

Here Barnett gets to the point quickly. The record doesn’t open with a long dirge or repetitive riff, rather it begins with Courtney opening her mouth to speak. And she barely pauses for breath for the next forty minutes. Only a couple of lacidazical tracks exceed the four minute mark, and even they don’t feel half as long as they actually are. On the whole the songs are short, classically structured and effectively arranged. There’s a bit of soulful organ that pops up here and there, guitar effects are used only when necessary, and solos are short and unfussy. Barnett has assembled a tight band of musicians, whose technical proficiency never gets in the way of the simple and direct songwriting.

Barnett deals with everyday themes better than any lyricist since Alex Turner on Arctic Monkeys debut. But whereas Turner talked almost exclusively about nights out, Barnett casts her eye in countless directions. At times she’s intrinsically observational and at other times slyly personal. But whether she’s singing about an existential time crisis, depicting a young man’s mini-breakdown or trying to impress a swimmer in the adjacent lane, Barnett is always making the mundane seem interesting and the interesting seem mundane. Whilst her lyrics seem, on the surface, to be clear cut and almost mechanically dry and straightforward, they often make larger points about the state of the world, or the state of her mind.

Of the personal songs, ‘An illustration of Loneliness’ is the most effective. It finds Barnett in restless state, unable to sleep, and occasionally remembering that she misses her partner. ‘I lay awake at three, staring at the ceiling, it’s a kind of off-white, maybe it’s a cream…I’m thinking of you too.’ Here, as elsewhere, she strikes a convincing note about pampered millennials; busy being bored, easily distracted, heart on sleeve sincere but overly self-aware. ‘I wanna go out but I wanna stay home’ she moans at another point, and who hasn’t been there? That’s the beauty of her lyrics – you don’t have to look too hard to find yourself staring back.

Take for example the stunning ‘Depreston’, which finds Barnett and her partner searching for a new house. It describes in meticulous detail the tedious process of finding your first home and the somewhat scary implications of what that means. ‘it’s got a lovely garden, a garage for two cars to park in, or a lot of room for storage if you’ve just got one.’ Read off the page the lyrics appear straightforwardly descriptive and unemotional but the performance elevates the song and adds extra significance to the words. It’s Barnett’s most affecting vocal performance to date – an actual ballad that she sings rather than just sing-speaks – and what a surprisingly lovely voice she has, both distinctive and warm. The melancholic guitar and sad chord progression lend the song a tone that makes the idea of buying a house seem less like an exciting leap in to adulthood and more like a depressing harbinger of middle age – like you’re settling down and giving up, conforming to the norm and actually, undoubtedly, growing up. Her continuous reluctance (‘I guess it wouldn’t hurt us’ / ‘how’s that for first impressions’ / ‘it’s a deceased estate’ / ‘I can’t think of floorboards anymore’) is palpable and easily relatable. Like many of us, Barnett resorts to sarcasm when the reality of the situation becomes too heavy (‘aren’t the pressed middle ceilings great?!’) and the ambiguous closing line (‘If you’ve got a spare half a million you could knock it down and start rebuilding’) Makes me wonder what we’re meant to take from the song.

But Barnett is often like that – not vague, just a bit elusive. She doesn’t want to provide answers or give lectures or offer didactic meaning; she wants to tell her story and then get out. Her songs may seem mundane or insignificant, and maybe they are, or maybe you can prise some kind of revelation from them. Certainly, you’re going to have to read between the lines, and look around the edges of the songs if you’re at all interested in understanding the real Courtney Barnett. Not that that seems a particularly worthwhile endeavour or one that she approves of. ‘Don’t ask me what I really mean, I am just a reflection of what you really wanna see, so take what you want from me.’ If anyone wants to dissect these songs and call her the voice of a generation – which is no stretch – then she isn’t going to agree or disagree. Likewise if you want to jump around to these songs in a club and pay the words no real attention, that’s your prerogative as well. Her approach is to tell you a bunch of stuff that happened and leave you alone to sit and think about it. Or just sit.

8.5/10

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