We All Can Relate to Courtney Barnett

Courtney Barnett’s lyrics are smart, self-effacing and ironic. Though Barnett has been on the scene since well before the pandemic, she seems the perfect musician for an age in which people can’t hug, must and wear a mask (or two) and generally are nervous and skidish.

From Will Hermes’ review in Rolling Stone Barnett’s album, “Tell Me How You Really Feel,” which was released in 2017:

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.

Courtney Barnett hasn’t forgotten the people she met on the way up. In fact, in the song “Elevator Operator,” she takes them up with her — and then down again. The song, according to Billboard, features cameos by her band and other contemporaries on the Australian music scene.

The best known face is not from Down Under, however. It belongs to Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who is seen playing chess against his son. The entertaining video feels like a short movie. It ends with the band rocking out on top of a building, a la The Beatles in “Let it Be” — less iconically, but far higher off the ground — and a shot of downtown Melbourne, which looks like a lovely city.

MusicFeeds has the list of participants. My favorite is Paul Kelly, an apparently well-known Australian guitarist, singer and songwriter. He plays a not-too-pleased bowler.

Courtney Barnett is Hard to Not Like

Barnett is very hard to not like. She is a clever songwriter with an extremely identifiable ironic writing style. The same could be said for her singing. Like her or not, she is instantly recognizable. Her videos are fun to watch as well.

Her 2015 debut album, “Sometimes and I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit,” was met with “rave critical acclaim,” according to Wikipedia. Rolling Stone noted that it received “a surprise Grammy nomination.” The album made the list of best albums of the year from Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Times (UK), Pitchfork and the Chicago Tribune.

courtney barnett
Courtney Barnett. (Photo: Fred von Lohmann)

It’s ridiculous, of course, to try to write something about how someone sounds. John Sieger at Urban Milwaukee does a nice job of trying, however. He says that Barnett has an “off balance musical sensibility” and that she “also sing/talks in a truly arresting manner, almost like she’s behind your back muttering about some recent slight.”

The goal, I suppose, of NPR’s Guest DJ feature is to trace the influences on musicians in a manner more interesting than simply asking them. In the case of Barnett, two highest profile (and no doubt oldest) acts she selected at Wilco (“Handshake Drugs”) and Talking Heads (“Once in a Lifetime”).

Barnett’s discography is posted at Discogs. She has most recorded an album with a musician named Kurt Vile. The two are touring together and will hit the states this autumn.

The Guardian’s Dorian Lynskey does a nice profile of Barnett. She comes across exactly as her songs suggest: Quiet, introspective, very intelligent and a keen observer. Gaining a good deal of notoriety – she is a star in Australia — must be a very interesting and somewhat unsettling experience for her.

A GQ profile of Barnett has an interesting and unexplained lead sentence: “You could see Courtney Barnett dressing up as Cousin Itt for Halloween. ” I’m not sure if the writer was talking about a physical resemblance — not a compliment, to be sure — or something a bit more philosophical. Perhaps see just loves “The Addams Family,” which is not a bad thing.

But Eve Barlow, who wrote the feature, touches on just how smart and in a sense challenging Barnett is:

The answer to Barnett’s problems lay in wielding her overactive mind as a tool for her own smarts, and not self-damnation. Easier said than done. “Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence” is one song title that describes the struggle. She took the anger behind trying to go “political” and poured those feelings into tunes dedicated to friends’ woes. “Then I realized that I was writing those to myself,” she says. She contended with her thoughts more—“instead of letting them linger up in the air.” And as much as it makes her wince to admit it, traveling the world made her face her demons in new ways. She found her head wasn’t quite as scary as she’d feared it was.

The bottom line is that the music is deep. It’s also self-effacing, funny and fresh.

Above is “Avant Gardener” — a truly terrific early Barnett song — and below is the more recent “Elevator Operator.”

(Homepage photo: Paul Hudson | Flickr)


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