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.”
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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.