Building Pyramids With Coke Cans
First of all: I feel inclined to admit that I only found out about Courtney Barnett a few weeks ago, so shame on all of you who knew about her and kept her a secret. You know I like great things.
In any case, it didn’t take me long to catch on once I had the chance. Apparently, the Melbourne product has been gaining steam for years, following the releases of two critically acclaimed EPs and a track, “Avant Gardener,” which Pitchfork Media named one of the best of 2013. That track’s easygoing tale of a mundane Monday gone awry showcased Barnett’s scathing wit and Kerouac-esque rivers of visual consciousness, as well as her unapologetic accent and a discordant guitar solo which would make John Cale blush.
All of those elements are present on Barnett’s first full-length LP, released Monday and entitled Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit (Milk! Records). The lead single, and second track, from the album, “Pedestrian At Best,” showcases a rougher, punkier edge than “Avant Gardener” but one which we nevertheless knew to be integral to her sound. “Pedestrian” packs endless rhymes, external and internal, within a Marc Bolan guitar line, packed to the brim with fuzz, feedback and punch. The track brings enough of the musician’s dream aesthetic so as not to be insincere, yet it’s hard to think that Barnett isn’t conducting a full dressing-down of what people think it means, or once meant, to be a wasteful rock star in excess (“Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you/Tell me I’m exceptional, I promise to exploit you”).
The album’s opener, “Elevator Operator,” is a kooky jumper about a kooky would-be jumper who skips work to waste time differently, resigned in the mediocrity of his life. The chorus is a plea for the young protagonist not to cut the cord too early, but he only steps upstairs to monitor the life outside his own. The pounding drums and hand claps chug the track along, inviting the listener to join Barnett in the macabre party.
One of Courtney Barnett’s best tricks occurs when she explodes the insignificant and inversely reduces the important to the mundane. Both “An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York),” reputedly about Barnett’s first trip to the city, and “Depreston,” concerning the frustration of searching for a home, betray the incredible attention to detail and power of observation which permeates her best work. The former juxtaposes ceiling descriptions with guitar riffs which would be comfortable on a St. Vincent record, and Barnett takes the time to remind us that, although she might see things others don’t, she still takes time for those most central to her life (“I think I’m hungry/I’m thinking of you too”).
Clocking in at an even seven minutes, “Small Poppies” is the album’s longest and most challenging track. It covers a great deal of territory, starting around The Beatles’ “I’m Only Sleeping” and landing somewhere in the middle of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” Barnett’s vocals are particularly striking here, as her soft, emotional coo lulls us close before hammering us over the head with a frying pan during the “eye for an eye” chorus. Like the vocal styles, pain and redemption also find themselves at conflict, often within the same line (“At the end of the day, it’s a pain that I keep seeing your name/But I’m sure it’s a bore being you”).
Though Barnett specializes in a semi-spoken word delivery, her fluency in melodies is not to be taken for granted. “Depreston,” for example, has a hint of “Dancing in the Dark” carrying its melancholy description of suburbia before descending to a repeated outro which sounds more hopeful than the jest its words imply. Barnett’s subdued, reverberating Telecaster betrays the simplicity present in most of her guitar work, which makes it all the more effective. An organ solo begs us not to think about ceiling tiles anymore, at least for a little while.
An ode to millennial ennui details the prospect of facing people you don’t like during a night on the town. “Nobody Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party” is Barnett’s “TV Party,” though the narrator has found something better to do: namely, stay in and avoid the fuss. It appropriately leads into “Debbie Downer,” who sounds like just the kind of person one might encounter during a reluctant adventure outside the living room (“Don’t stop listening, I’m not finished yet”).
“Kim Caravan” approaches the territory of The Doors in both poetic content and its creation of atmosphere ahead of words. The track builds to a frantic peak, with guitars screaming to be heard and the casual donation of the “she” pronoun in reference to Jesus. Whether Barnett intends any religious connotation is unclear, as the song ends seemingly just before she gets to what it is she wants us to know. The album’s closer, “Boxing Day Blues,” is the perfect Advil for its own hangover, succinctly placing the listener at the center of another contradictory affair (“I love all of your ideas/You love the idea of me/Lover, I’ve got no idea”).
Courtney Barnett’s grasp of her own influences may be unparalleled among contemporary singer-songwriters, a James Murphy-like sense of self-awareness feeding an intrinsic and intense creativity. Sometimes her style is that of Bob Dylan fronting the Black Keys and exclusively playing extended versions of “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” and at other instances she hints at Joni Mitchell replacing Liam Gallagher in Oasis. All of this, while retaining and even further exploring her own unique musical identity.
Her bored, seemingly effortless vocals seduce us into tales of defaulting on home loans and the internal conflict surrounding the purchase of organic fruits. Outlets such as The New York Times and Grantland have already pointed to Barnett’s incredible portrayals of the things we overlook every day, and Sometimes I Sit… is a cyclone of the tedious made electric. Shades of The La’s, Best Coast and Ezra Furman give the album a sense of familiarity, as if this album has been in existence for years, and we all just missed it. It’d be just like Courtney Barnett to be the one to let us in on the secret.