After what seems like an agonizing wait (in reality it’s less than two years) Courtney Barnett has finally unleashed her debut solo album. Following on from the cult hit that was double EP ‘A Sea Of Split Peas’, there’s definitely a feeling that this could be something special, and that’s just in the moments before you press play on this eleven track set. So does it reach those giddy heights, we take you through our guide to all 11 tracks on the album!
‘Elevator Operator’ kicks off with that all important issue of post-university careerism. You’ve barely entered your 20’s and already the pressure is mounting. So you’ve got your first job? Trust me, you’ll be wanting to kick it in within a week! This is Courtney Barnett in full storyteller mode, detailing in daft detail with wit that even ol’ Bobby Dylan would be just a little bit proud of. “I come up here for perception and clarity, I like to imagine I’m playing Sim City, the people all look like ants from up here!”
‘Pedestrian At Best’ is that slice of grungey throwback that is seemingly required of any artist who comes from an alt scene and holds a guitar. The track plays to the strengths that she so often displays in her looser and more energetic live shows.
It’s a fun song, if a little weak lyrically (by her high standards). The lyric “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you” stands out, perhaps because it could easily be a battle cry, a mission statement on the pressure’s surrounding the build-up to this album. After being buzzed by Pitchfork and NME, there’s a real feeling of expectation among the indie loving public for Barnett to be at the forefront of a newer, more intelligent scene. Well fuck em! She’s taking it as business as usual, and ironically it’s the approach that is most likely to deliver some success instead of seeing her fall my the wayside along with other big indie hitters like Spector, The Rakes and The Paddingtons (shudder). Sometimes trying too hard is just going to end in tears…
‘An Illustration Of Loneliness (Sleepless In New York)’ is a dissection of a long distance relationship, the constant need to remain entwined in each others lives while still having to tend to the mundane commitments of everyday life. Perhaps it’s just this reviewer but the chorus riff almost has tinges of Gary Numan to it, if said Numan riff was reinvented by Pavement of course.
The song distills what is so great about Courtney Barnett, she’ll spend whole verses spitting intelligent verses that evoke ideas of free form poetry alongside the world weary wit of The Liverpool Poets. Then comes the chorus, the message is compacted down into an almost flippant “I’m thinking of you too” which cuts through the extrapolation and puts it simply in a way that everyone else just wishes they could.
‘Small Poppies’ is a track that’s more about vibe than anything else. Stoned and lazy, introspective and hazy. It sort of floats on a cloud of paranoid melancholy. Barnett does well however to avoid the slacker rock pitfalls of sounding like a needy and whiny pothead by using lyrics that often seem broken, or lacking her typical punchline. Keeping you hanging on for some sort of pay-off. This lets the track soar at the appropriate moments and gives the music the opportunity to take you in the grasp that her lyrics normally hold you in, a decent track if nothing else.
‘Depreston’ brings us a further slice of melancholy, this time more lyrically moving, and thought-provoking. It’s smalltown in its feel “Now we’ve got that percolator, never made a latte greater, I’m saving $23 a week” but gradually expands into a wider territory. In essence it’s a song about that feeling of wanting to escape from somewhere small and constricting, before realizing the alternative is even worse. As Barnett sings the line “If you’ve got a spare half a million, you could knock it down and start rebuilding” it becomes apparent that perhaps being a small town kid isn’t quite a downer after all.
We then go back to the Pavement-Alt vibes with ‘Aqua Profunda’, a quick and quirky tale of trying to impress a guy at a swimming pool. “I tried my very best to impress you, I hold my breath longer than I normally do”. The track is over about as quickly as it started, leaving just enough of a taste to leave you salivating for the next titbit of lyrical whimsy.
‘Dead Fox’ is more Portland than Melbourne in its vibe, tailoring some fun but provoking lyrical insights on the ecology. “A little pesticide can’t hurt. Never having too much money, I get the cheap stuff at the supermarket, but they’re all pumped up with shit. A friend told me they stick nicotine in the apples”. She then moves on to more dry but witty observations like “More people die on the road than they do in the ocean, maybe we should mull over culling cars instead of sharks. Or just lock them up in parks where we can go and view them”. Welcome to the happily distorted headspace of Courtney Barnett, a fun and clever world where you’ll be transfixed (and sometimes even educated) for the duration of your stay!
Next we go onto a little ditty ‘Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party’ about social paranoia; well it is an alt/slacker rock album after all! The guitars grind and buzz as Barnett mulls over that age old issue of wanting to go out, but also wanting to stay in (we’ve all been there…). We then move onto ‘Debbie Downer’, a breezy sixties power pop style tune that remains at Valium levels of upbeat despite being about a neurotic wingebag. The juxtaposition works well though, allowing the different nuances to play off against each other. It’s more lyrically straight than many of the other tracks on the album, but as a slice of Alt-Pop fun, you won’t find much better!
‘Kim’s Caravan’ is a real picture setting song, packed with snippets of set dressing to paint the scene. “I see a dead seal on the beach, the old man says he’s already saved it three times this week, guess it just wants to die” introduces a fable-like tale about environmental destruction paired up against feelings of personal insecurity and inferiority to make a clever and thought provoking track without coming across at any point as condescending or preachy.
“I love all of your ideas, you love the idea of me” sings Barnett on closer ‘Boxing Day Blues’, a track about agonizing whether to continue a flagging relationship through another new year or not. A nice slice of melancholy to close an album that is bound to be in the top 10 of every critics list this year.
In summary, this is a fun but introspective album that paints the usual vivid pictures that we’ve come to expect from Courtney Barnett. It seems weird to call it business as usual considering it’s her 1st full album, but that’s exactly what it is. Why alter a winning formula after all? Trust us on this on, this is going to be high on the critics lists come December!