Review: Down-Under Wonder

Courtney Barnett’s marvelous debut feels like an unputdownable short story collection set to rock music.
courtney barnett sometimes

opinion byPETER TABAKIS < @ptabakis >

Courtney Barnett approaches words like a showoff with a basketball. Without breaking a sweat, she turns phrases round and round atop her forefinger’s tip, a neat trick that belies a deeper, more masterful talent. Elaborate rhyme schemes come off as deceptively singsong-y. Twisty lyrical structures are jerked tightrope-taut by a flat vocal affect. Slanted and riotous guitar-pop tunes demand to blast from every open window. Languid and lovely slow-burners beg for your ear alone. Barnett’s songs are listless and nimble, depressing and sparkling, universal and specific — often at once, contradiction be damned.

The Melbourne-based Barnett, who originally hails from the Northern Beaches of Sydney, first caused a splash with two EPs that earned her high praise and the designation as a slacker. The plaudits were well deserved. A Sea of Split Peas, a fine enough collection of her earliest recordings, hinted at greatness. A couple of songs in particular, “Avant Gardener” and “History Eraser” (from 2013’s How to Carve a Carrot into a Rose EP), announced Barnett as a prime melody maker. The news of her slackerdom, on the other hand, has been greatly exaggerated. (Gardening is hard work! Harder still: first-rate songcraft.) Barnett’s critics have extrapolated a misleading narrative from her ironic song titles and an admiration of such flannel-clad heroes as Kurt Cobain and Stephen Malkmus. I suspect the term they were grasping for was “neurotic,” a much better fit. Whatever, man. Let someone else unpack that unfortunate misnomer.

Barnett’s marvelous full-length debut Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit is an exposition of her morose outlook and acerbic wit; applied to finely drawn, mundane impressions; channeled through sunlit garage rock and mordant folk fantasias. It’s the kind of under-the-radar album that warrants the excitement of a flashier release. Courtney Barnett dazzles in the microcosm. Her observations seesaw between wry commentary (“Dead Fox” and “Elevator Operator”) and stark sincerity (“Small Poppies” and “An Illustration of Loneliness”). Poignance rarely comes in such a droll package (“We all think that we're nobody/ But everybody is somebody else's somebody"). Humor rarely springs from such bloodletting (“Now we've got that percolator, never made a latte greater/ I'm saving twenty-three dollars a week!”). Sometimes I Sit and Think is an embarrassment of small-scale riches; its sharpest detail regularly contains emotional multitudes.


The album also rocks, and that rock is jagged and keen, capable of breaking the skin. Sometimes I Sit and Think lends further support to the argument that women are the last, best hope of a once vital genre. From St. Vincent to Sleater-Kinney, guitar-shredding remains a source of immense catharsis, even as the Y chromosome, a former prerequisite, has never seemed less relevant to the endeavor of rockin’ and a-rollin’. Barnett’s fretwork routinely crunches, stabs, and pounces over a barreling 4/4 beat. Lead single “Pedestrian at Best” sums up this breathless approach before the song reaches its first chorus. Her hooks strike the brain’s pleasure center with such relentless frequency, especially during the album’s exuberant middle, that the comedown of “Kim’s Caravan” anticipates the listener’s withdrawal symptoms. The banshee wail of its guitar solo is, mercifully, pure aural methadone. Even when unplugged, as on the gorgeous highlight “Depreston” (a daughter of “Father to a Sister of Thought”) and album closer “Boxing Day Blues,” softness comes with a sting.

Barnett is a phenomenal musician, but she’s an even better storyteller. Her tales, so vivid, linger far beyond their short runtime. Real estate shopping in a dreary suburb becomes an open house for personal disappointment (“Depreston”). An attempt at impressing a stranger in a public pool ends with humiliation and a near drowning (“Aqua Profunda!”). The contours of an unfamiliar room outline the emptiness of being far from home (“An Illustration of Loneliness”). A suicidal seal and the flattened fauna littering the shoulders of a busy highway implicate this whole business of modernity (“Kim’s Caravan” and “Dead Fox”). An office drone skips work and heads to the roof of a building, not to jump to his death, but to play an imaginary game of SimCity (“Elevator Operator”). Sometimes I Sit and Think feels like a short story anthology set to song, one that’s unputdownable.

Before delivering a loving rendition of “Cannonball” for the AV Club, Barnett revealed she drew inspiration from the Breeders’ off-kilter hit the very morning she began recording her new material. This seems crazy, if only because it makes perfect sense. After all, Sometimes I Sit and Think is in conversation with the likes of Marvin the Album and “Supernova,” Brighten the Cornersand “Malibu,” Mellow Gold and “About a Girl.” The dream of the 90s is alive in Courtney Barnett. And with Sometimes I Sit and Think, it’s just been fully realized. A-