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Album review: Courtney Barnett ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’

Courtney Barnett is among the most observational of contemporary songwriters. 2014’s The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas and the following year’s Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit were exercises in transforming field notes of the everyday and seemingly mundane—staring at the ceiling while trying to sleep, saving money on coffee by purchasing a percolator, having a panic attack brought on by an allergy attack—and putting them to a garage rock tune.

The inspiration for the chorus of “Nameless, Faceless,” the first single released for the Australian slack rocker’s newest record, Tell Me How You Really Feel, came from a newspaper article, which Barnett later discovered to be a Margaret Atwood quote: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid that men will kill them.” It is another incorporation of daily life into Barnett’s art, but on a larger scale, among more urgent circumstances. After reading overwhelming statistics about domestic violence in Australia, and tackling misogyny from the local park to the international music industry, Barnett chooses to follow the Atwood quote by declaring, “I hold my keys between my fingers,” emphasizing how darkly comical women’s tricks for feeling safe can be. The issues the world faces most recently divert attention away from the microscopic details and interactions of everyday life, and Barnett now looks inward to make sense of them all.

Juxtaposition appears throughout Tell Me How You Really Feel as Barnett finds silliness in darkness and melancholy in the most joyous moments. The album begins with a low and slow guitar strum reminiscent of the sonic suspense leading up to a Western film’s saloon brawl scene, before Barnett enters with her first of many testimonies of cautious optimism, “You know what they say, no one’s born to hate.” The next track’s sugary title “City Looks Pretty” and its buoyant melody prove themselves to be misleading in the song’s opening line: “The city looks pretty when you’ve been indoors/For 23 days I’ve ignored all your phone calls.”

Unlike in her previous work, when Barnett has fit an entire game of “I Spy” into a single line, darting from one observed distraction to the next, she now provides herself with musical and lyrical space to dwell in certain emotions and welcome their inherent contradictions. “Breathe in, breathe out,” she reminds her listeners, or perhaps herself, with a Bob Dylan-like tenor on “Help Your Self.” She brings down the tempo for drawn-out, curving and twisting guitar solos, articulating her emotions one note at a time. Without changing the subject too quickly, she allows herself time for experiencing isolation (“City Looks Pretty,” “Need A Little Time”), anger (“I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch”), and anxiety plus its subsequent self-deprecation on the appropriately titled “Crippling Self-Doubt And a General Lack of Confidence,” on which Barnett is joined by Kim and Kelley Deal to repeat the chorus, “I don’t know, I don’t know anything.”

Making space to look within herself helps Barnett to listen, without always feeling the need to observe, recognize, and respond.  “I know you’re doing your best/ I think you’re doing just fine,” Barnett sings, almost whispering, on “Sunday Roast,” the album’s tender final track. “You know your presence is present enough.”  On Tell Me How You Really Feel, Barnett is here to tell us how she really feels through a mixture of earnest sentiment and sarcasm, but still provides us the space to be present, to sit and think about it all with her, or maybe just to sit.

Tell Me How You Really Feel comes out May 18th.

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