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Review: Courtney Barnett's Raging, Empathetic 'Tell Me How You Really Feel'

The indie-rock singer-songwriter mixes penetrating observation, wry humor and deep empathy on a modest masterpiece of an LP

Courtney Barnett's second studio album is 'Tell Me How You Really Feel.' Credit: Pooneh Ghana

Back in 2013, Courtney Barnett covered Kanye West’s 'Black Skinhead' on Australian radio as a guitar-charged glam-grunge stomp, reframing its outrage in her bedhead Melbourne white-girl flow. It was a questionable yet telling move for a fellow verbose storyteller, delivered just as her single "Avant Gardener" – a deceptively offhand first-person account of an asthma attack – announced the arrival of a rare talent.

Now a bona fide indie-rock heroine, Barnett has made a second LP that occasionally recalls her early come-to-Yeezus session. Tell Me How You Really Feel is noisy and way more pissed off than her 2015 debut, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, unsheathing sharp new earnestness alongside her trademark sabers of sarcasm and penetrating observation. She opens by paraphrasing Nelson Mandela. "Y'know what they say/No one's born to hate/We learn it somewhere along the way," she whispers at the outset of "Hopefulessness," a slithering post-punk inspirational that builds from ambivalent incantation to near-snarl, twin guitars cresting into a glorious noise burst before receding comically behind the earthbound wail of a teakettle – a perfectly Barnett-ish touch.

Humor, often dark, flickers throughout like a candle. "Nameless, Faceless" – an echo of Nirvana’s "Endless, Nameless" – riffs off a quote from Margaret Atwood, measuring the psychic burden of violence in light of the schism between the sexes. "Men are scared that women will laugh at them," Barnett intones dryly before the punchline: "Women are scared that men will kill them." The song is a marvel of tonal control – she expresses sincere-seeming empathy for an Internet troll, laced with acid sarcasm at the notion women must play the role of default comfort dispensers.

Similar dual consciousness appears in songs about relationships ("Need a Little Time") and dream-chasing ("City Looks Pretty"), and in straightforward screeds "I'm Not Your Mother, I'm Not Your Bitch," a furious punk smackdown that takes a moment for measured self-examination, and "Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Self Confidence," a passive-aggressive rant egged on by girl-gang backing vocals from the Breeders' Kim and Kelley Deal, two of Barnett's foremost indie-rock foremoms.

They're the most Nirvana-esque moments on this modest masterpiece of an album, made by an avowed fan who shows a kindred underdog solidarity. Kicking against the pricks, including the ones in her own head, Barnett encourages us to do the same, with an impressive generosity of spirit. "Take your broken heart/Turn it into art," she counsels at the LP's outset. "Your vulnerability is stronger than it seems." As Tell Me How You Really Feel amply demonstrates, so is hers.