In an instance of dumb luck, Courtney Barnett’s thrilling sophomore album arrives a few weeks after a lavish reissue of Liz Phair’s monumental debut dropped. A quarter-century separates Tell Me How You Really Feel and Exile in Guyville. But with every spin, the former seems more in conversation with the latter than Guyville ever did with the Rolling Stones’ 1972 masterwork, Exile on Main St. In a recent interview, Liz Phair drew a similar line between her music and Barnett’s. Responding to a question regarding her influence on younger artists, she said, “[When] I first heard Courtney Barnett, I heard it big time.”
Phair probably wasn’t referring to these ten new songs, which bring to the forefront an emotional nakedness only hinted at on Barnett’s phenomenal 2013 debut and earlier EPs. Where Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit felt like acollection of short stories put to song, the songwriting on Tell Me How You Really Feel is wholly autobiographical. The shift from stylized narrative to bare revelation is, at first, jarring. It’s as if Barnett abandoned her signature storytelling method for a more conventional approach, perhaps because of nerves or maybe a fear of the dreaded sophomore slump.
Having lived with the album on repeat for over a month now, each subsequent listen has uncovered fresh riches and increasing nuance and depth. A slump this is not. Tell Me How You Really Feel is instead an intentionally muted triumph and an emotional recalibration. Lyrically, anger and sadness dominate the record until some light breaks through on its final track. Musically, though, hope brims throughout.
Barnett’s love of early-90s rock has never been executed so faithfully or sounded this vibrant. Spiky guitar hooks abound on Tell Me How You Really Feel. From the slow-building crescendo of “Hopefulness” to the bright pop-rock of “City Looks Pretty” and “Charity”, the punk eruption of “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch” to the stomping “Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Self Confidence”, the funk slink of “Help Your Self” to the gliding majesty of “Walkin’ On Eggshells”, Barnett embraces her insecurities and transforms them into grungy earworms.
The album’s two slower songs recall her earlier highpoint “Depreston”. “Need a Little Time Out”, an energetic guitar ballad, is a resplendent confession that boomerangs from the first-person to the second. The languid “Sunday Roast”, on the other hand, concludes a thematically dark album with a beacon of light. Its chorus finds Barnett at her most optimistic and openhearted.
Tell Me How You Really Feel peaks midway, on “Nameless, Faceless”. The album’s lead single, with its descending guitar notes and a Margaret Atwood reference, finds Barnett employing old tools to tackle a newsworthy social ill. It’s breathless and gutting, a short and sweet examination of sex and violence. It draws blood, but so does the rest of the album. Interiority is made explicit. Sparkling melodies smuggle in deeper truths. Guitars rule. Courtney Barnett may have abandoned third-person intricacy for broader statements. On this latest release, she’s made good on her initial promise, and has offered up a new one. A MINUS