Courtney Barnett sounds like somebody you might know. Well, somebody you might know if you had more Australian friends, and one of those friends was a widely revered alt-rock guitarrist with a knack for making the mundane seem magical.
What I’m trying to say is that even though Courtney is an accomplished, complex songwriter and an intensely developed musician, she lets her voice stay rough around the edges and her diction realistic and unpretentious. And she uses that voice, like many successful musicians, to sing about the universal human experience, only Courtney sings mostly about the boring parts of it, or the times where we get caught up in thought.
Take“Depreston”, for example. In this slow, pretty, swaying ode of a song, Courtney tours a potential house to buy, noticing practical details like the 2 car garage, canisters for cofee, tea, and flower, and distinct lack of nearby coffee shops, until she is caught off guard by a picture left behind of a young man serving in Vietnam. Suddenly she finds that “I can’t think of floorboards anymore, whether the front door faces south or north”, but instead she begns mourning the loss of the family’s history, and ruminating on how easily whole home could be knocked down and its many years of memories lost.
These simple, affecting moments, where Courtney suprises herself and the listener with the power of the ordinary world to stop us in our tracks, are the purest delights of her writing.
Another standout, “Avant Gardener”, is a song about waking up feeling useless, trying to be productive by gardening, being stung by a bee, going anaphalactic, and being rescued by some paramedics. Courtney doesn’t overdramatize the event. The song retains a humble sense of humor in the face of stress. My favorite line is “The paramedic thinks I’m clever ’cause I play guitar / I think she’s clever ’cause she stops people dying”. The experience reminds Barnett of her difficulty in trying out smoking, and her thoughts resolve in a suprisingly sincere and affecting chorus, with the repeated line “I’m not that good at breathing in” revealing a desire for peace that Courtney can’t quite reach.
Usually Courtney’s songs are friendly, dry, and witty, but she takes some well-measured risks in songwriting on 2015’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. In the opening tracks her band increases their capacity for grungy, skirling guitar work, and on the second song,“Pedestrian at Best”, Courtney spews forth a stream of cluttered contradictions and freudian spitballs before turning positively mean, screaming out “I think you’re a joke! But I don’t find you very fuuuuunny!”
The back half of the album settles into the mundane but meaningful moments and characters that Courtney specializes in. She sings about a young man skipping work, another man saving a seal at the beach, even her reluctance to cut the grass in her front yard. Her unique artistry lives in the ways she allows quotidian moments and ordinary people to affect her conciousness so authentically. Barnett is accomplished, but not ambitious, stressed, but not too worried about it, and while she understands her life is probably not more interesting than anybody elses, listening to her music allows one to appreciate the extraordinariness of the normal lives we all live.
How to Listen:
“Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit” is an incredible record in its entirety, but the first two songs are the most chaotic and bombastic, and could turn away first-time listeners who aren’t into that whole grunge thing.
I’d recommend starting with “Avant Gardner” if you want a fun song, or “Depreston” if you want a beautiful one. The guitars and drums give the band’s unique sound, but take on simpler forms than in other songs, and allow every word Courtney says to be heard, as she tells intruiging, funny, and affecting stories.
And then listen throught Sometime I Sit and Think with a copy of lyrics in front of you. It’s amazing.
I’ve already written about “Pedestrian at Best” in another article, and outside of that song I recommend “Elevator Operator”, the first track on Sometimes I Sit and Think.
“Elevator Operator” tells the story of a young man named Oliver Paul skipping work and instead running and dodging the traffic throughout Sydney. In the chorus he declares “I’m not going to work today! I’m gonna count the seconds that the trains run late! / Sit on the lawn making pyramids out of coke cans.”
Along his aimless sprint to freedom, he ascends the elevator with a woman with stretched back hair, a snakeskin bag, and botoxed skin, who takes him for suicidal, exclaiming “Don’t jump little boy! Don’t jump off that roof! / I’d do anything to have skin like you!”
Barnett then offeres one of her most hilarious and human exhanges. Paul replies “I think you’re projecting the way that you’re feeling / I’m not suicidal, just idling insignificantly / I come up here for perception and clarity / I like to imagine I’m playing Sim-City- all the people look like ants from up here / and the wind’s the only traffic you can hear / all that I ever wanted to be was an elevator operator can you help me please?”
The only universally positive political news of the past week for me has been the amazing revelation that President Barack Obama, already known for his eclectic music taste, allegedly works out to Courtney Barnett’s “Elevator Operator”.