Australia – a country whose secondary origins are based on a prison regime – has produced some fair dinkum criminal records over the years; spare me the madness of Men At Work, and the often mispronounced INXS (though, to be fair, “Kick” is a bonza recording). Associated with regularly recurring Kylie come backs and Paul Hogan problems, only Nick Cave and Tame Impala have given Oz some indie cred. And, of course, Courtney Barnett, who in the past has had us jumping like kangaroos in a mosh pit, and now returns for her sophomore release, Tell Me How You Really Feel. But, like a boomerang that has to be thrown the right way to return, has she managed to follow up her debut Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit with another perfect window into both the loud and the calm of her psyche?
The opening track “Hopefulessness” has a cool Nirvana feel, with Courtney’s vocals gently lifting the slow clangy atmosphere, as the song builds to a howling crescendo; a grand cinematic start that could fit into a Christopher Nolan movie with ease. The more jaunty storytelling of subsequent track “City Looks Pretty” is like Stereolab via Elastica; Barnett’s truthful rant about everyday city life successfully balancing raw chords with electronic beeps. Surprisingly, by the end it half-slows to a torch song pace, becoming a heartfelt lament to the slow pace of the city, as its prettiness goes on, despite the supposed misery of the norm. Third track “Charity” has a buzzing indie groove, a Lou Reed deadpan quality, with great personal storytelling that makes the listener want to drive either to, or from, a party in the sunshine. So far then, there’s little that isn’t generic indie of the last ten years, but Courtney’s knowing delivery and vocal twang retreads known artists of this genre with both passionate and pathos.
“Need A Little Time” tells the tale of a relationship that’s frayed from the edges – it could go either way – and this song describes the cold autopsy that occurs when the spark, and hope, have gone; the sorrow-filled guitar solo here carries those feelings strongly. “Nameless, Faceless” is a welcome rant at the current #metoo backlash, and the base sexism thrown at women under the guise of free speech, with lyrics such as “I want to walk in the park / Men are scared that women will laugh at them” contrasting with “I carry my keys / between my fingers“. This is an important song at a time when women are still finding it hard to be heard over the noise of a lot of stupid men.
“I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch” is a harsh but effective sharp observation of a broken family relationship, very reminiscent of Hole and L7, with its well-crafted simplicity and brief but punchy atmosphere, while “Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence” returns to a sing-a-long feel of damaged themes of psychology, “indecision rots like a bag of last week’s meat” summing up a sense of upset apathy when you are asked how you are too often. These two are followed by “Help Your Self”, which finds Courtney both homaging 80s Joan Jett and 70s Free, as we are treated to a swaggering rock groove, showing she can have fun sometimes and pause between evaluating the human condition in an indie grunge style.
“Walkin’ on Eggshells” – though not the strongest track on the album – has a delicate tragic feel that may have worked better as a simple acoustic affair. On the other hand, it might be its position as the penultimate track on the album makes it become yet another song with a similar, if satisfactory, sound and a strong chorus. However, ending the album on a melancholy note works well: “Sunday Roast” sees Courtney’s voice lightly discussing the everyday – a family chat over lunch – with the production hinting that all is not well; the guitar breaks summing up awkward silences. “I know all your stories, but I’ll listen again / and if you’ll move away, you know I’ll miss your face” reflects the sadness and contrived but meaningful comfort that is needed by parents from their offspring, as older age and differences makes time long and uneasy.
Courtney Barnett has the ability to shape poignancy and uncomfortable subjects into catchy songs, but her jauntiness doesn’t distract from the core truth of her lyrics, and her heartbreaking vocals, which are at times raw and other times sweet – a good opposition, hidden in brilliant and re-listenable songs. Though this is more an album of darker themes and less hope than her debut, it is done with such panache and punk spirit that it would seem Courtney Barnett clearly knows her music sources, but makes them her own.
Tell Me How You Really Feel is available now through Marathon Artists and Milk! Records from Amazon.co.uk and other leading retailers.