’90s grunge rock meets sparkling lyricism in Courtney Barnett’s new album, sometimes I sit and think, and sometimes I just sit.
Melbourne is a hot spot for music, “but it’s not competitive,” says Courtney Barnett, the blue eyed Aussie who recently rocked the stage at SXSW, and garnered a glittering 8.6 review on Pitchfork for her new LP, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. “Everyone just loves making music. Yeah, you know, like, all my friends are pretty much musicians.” In retrospect, it was naïve to think that Courtney Barnett could possibly be more verbose over the phone than on her LP. But when you know her ‘internal monologue’, as she puts it, is constantly streaming, her relaxed way of speaking comes as a relief.
Sometimes I Sit has musical qualities reminiscent of ‘90s grunge music, carrying a kind of BBQ slacker rock sound that’s easy to listen to – but also, in Courtney’s case, deeply affecting. The music itself, driven by a brilliantly proficient Courtney on the guitar, only fills one third of the record’s belly. The rest is fed by her conversational and rambling lyrics, delivered in a deadpan style as if she’s trying to sing her train of thought on the spot. When asked how she reels in her constant influx of lyrical inspiration, she mumbles, “Um, well yeah like, I usually carry around a notebook in my backpack, you know, I just try to write everything down so I don’t forget it.”
The album was long anticipated by a swarm of followers she had picked up since releasing her double EP A Sea of Split Peas in 2013. “Releasing that EP was the moment when I finally felt comfortable in my songwriting,” Courtney says. A writer since 10 years old, Courtney channelled her talents through a variety of art forms before recognising her place as a solo artist. In her late teens, she attended the Tasmanian School of Art to study drawing and photography, but later dropped out to concentrate on refining her music.
“I just wasn’t really focusing that much,” she shrugs, “I felt like I was wasting my time.” Though her artwork continues to play a part in her career. She designs her album covers and artwork herself, playing on similarities she finds between her art and her music. “It’s all pretty simple,” she says, “like, my artwork it just line drawings and just really basic ideas. But, like my music, it’s slightly observational, like, based on what’s around me – what I’m seeing and doing.”
In her lyrics, the mundane is morphed into the poetic, and aggression is balanced with fleeting moments of raw vulnerability. One moment she’ll be considering whether or not to go to a party, the next she’ll touch on her fear of dying in her sleep; one minute she’ll be house hunting, the next she’s distracted after noticing an old photo of a Vietnam soldier in a widow’s home. “I think each song is just a reflection of my mood or whatever, at the time I was writing it,” she says. “You know how the mood helps set the tone, like the lyrical tone and the musical tone, and yeah.”
Throughout the album, Courtney wobbles between witty observation – describing roadkill as “kangaroo taxidermy” and “a possum Jackson Pollock painted on the tar” as she drives with her girlfriend to buy organic vegetables in ‘Dead Fox’- and self-uncertainty – “I don’t know quite who I am, but man I am trying” in ‘Small Poppies’.
In fact, Courtney’s self-uncertainty seems to underlie much of the record. Even at the album’s most aggressive, like the fast ‘Pedestrian At Best’, where she powers through a confused and angry train of thought – “I’m resentful, I’m having an existential time crisis what bliss, daylight savings won’t fix this mess” – she relieves it with a self-deprecating chorus: “put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you.”
The album ultimately culminates in ‘Kim’s Caravan’, a hurricane track of humanitarian crisis, where all of her self-consciousness entwines with a sad and introspective realisation of her surroundings, and she drinks away her sorrows to an echoing climb of cymbals and distortion – all brought on by the sight of a dead seal on the beach: “Guess I would wanna die too,” Courtney whispers, “with people putting oil into my air.”
There are a few times in the album where Courtney refers to larger issues in the world. She comments, “Music is a platform for communication and ideas, sharing ideas and emotion, so you know, big ideas or not, it’s important to be able to express these kinds of thoughts through music.” In ‘Dead Fox’, where she’s driving down a highway with her girlfriend to buy organic vegetables: “Maybe we should mull over culling cars instead of sharks, or just lock them up in parks where we can go and view them.” It’s lines like these, hidden among the sunniest lyrics, that hit you hard, leaving you bruised as you float along with Courtney into her next poignant train of thought.
Courtney Barnett is the new cool girl on the scene, but she’s probably too busy scribbling down ideas in her notebook to notice.