Courtney Barnett's first LP is full of sharp wit, quarter-life angst and crunchy Nineties riffs
Courtney Barnett is only on her first proper album, but she's already setting herself apart as one of the sharpest, most original songwriters around — at any level, in any genre. The Australian singer-guitarist, 27, is a self-strafing humorist à la Lena Dunham who's also a Dylan-style word ninja, spooling out honest, funny, indelible stories wrung from the everyday stuff even a good novelist might overlook. Her loose, conversational lyrics are full of images you can't shake and characters you need to know more about. You don't just quote a Courtney Barnett song, you recap it.
Barnett started getting attention with her 2013 release The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, with ambling melodies and lyrics like "I masturbated to the songs you wrote . . . /It felt wrong, but it didn't take too long." Her writing has matured scarily fast on Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, whose title perfectly sums up her biggest talent: No one is better than Barnett at crafting unforgettable songs from seemingly mundane subject matter. Write something about staring at the ceiling? She nails it with a richly detailed study in longing called "An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in NY)." OK, how about watching grass grow? No problemo: "Small Poppies" builds a seven-minute slacker-blues odyssey around the question of whether to mow the lawn. On "Dead Fox," a comedic bit about trying to eat healthy on a budget ("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") spins off into a hilarious monologue about a minor freakout while driving.
The most surprising thing about Sometimes I Sit might be how much it moves. The tunes are tight and sticky; the guitars hit with real sizzle and bite, accented by flourishes like the garage-rock organ in "Debbie Downer" or the cowbell swing of "Aqua Profunda!" The catchy, crunchy "Pedestrian at Best" is her old-school indie hit — in 1995, MTV's 120 Minutes would have played it between Elastica and Spacehog — complete with so-totally-Nineties anti-corporate lyrics: "Give me all your money/And I'll make some origami, honey."
Barnett puts her own apathy and insecurities front and center. But she writes empathetically about other people, too, like the guy in "Elevator Operator," who gets confused for a suicide case when he skips work to daydream on a roof. Some of the album's most striking moments are the most reflective ones, particularly the heart-ripping "Depreston," a pretty folk-pop mumbler. Barnett sings about driving out to the suburbs to look at a house in her price range; the place seems great, but darker details start to crowd her mind. The woman who used to live there has died, and there's a photo of a young man (her husband? her son?) in Vietnam. Barnett realizes she'd have to level the house and start over, respecting these strangers' past by destroying it — which she doesn't have the money to do. Oh, well, back to renting. But wherever Barnett ends up, we're going to want to go with her. She's a talent we'll be following for decades.