By Kimberley Thomson

Courtney Barnett Review: The point beyond hollow praise

In 2013, Courtney Barnett was in America. She was trailed by writer Adam Curley, who is now best known for fronting Melbourne-based post-punk band, Gold Class. Working for the now-defunct Australian music publication, Mess+Noise, Curley documented the initial smouldering interest in Barnett, which would soon become a petrol fire. He observed a showcase gig hosted by Pitchfork in New York:

“In the middle of the crowd, standing by the sound desk and dwarfed by those around her, is Melbourne songwriter Courtney Barnett. Next to Barnett is her manager, Nick O’Byrne, and the pair are giving [Eleanor] Friedberger undivided attention. In 20 minutes, Barnett will herself be taking the stage with her band, playing ostensibly the most important gig of her life thus far.”

The piece—‘The United States of Courtney Barnett’—is detailed and eerily prophetic. So much so, it almost reads like Barnett fan-fiction, imagining her life before fame. Take this scene in a New York Irish pub with Barnett, her booking agent, manager and bandmates:

“Betts squeezes into a booth next to Barnett. The pub has been decorated in anticipation of Halloween; fake cobwebs stretch from the already kitsch Celtic ornamentation on the windows to a television playing baseball. ‘Are you ready for the busiest week of your life,’ he asks. ‘Ha, yeah,’ Barnett nods. ‘I am.’ Betts and Barnett make small talk about Barnett’s impressions of New York as O’Byrne, Mudie and Hardingham chat about the city amongst themselves. The shoptalk, when it comes, is brief but pointed. Betts says he wants to get Barnett back to the States early in 2014 and again for the summer festivals. He’s had good responses when pitching her act to festival promoters. ‘I’ve been thinking about tours to get you on, too – The War on Drugs, Kurt Vile – And if there’s anyone you want to play with, let me know.’ Barnett takes it in. ‘I really like Kurt Vile.’”

When put on paper, Barnett’s trajectory from obscure Melbourne-based musician to internationally lauded, Great White Hope of indie rock is, in a word, freakish. It’s likely that Barnett never entertained fantasies of performing on American television shows or being nominated for a Grammy or making it on to Barack Obama’s workout playlist when she was playing Tuesday nights at the Old Bar or pulling beers at the Northcote Social Club in Melbourne five years ago.

She’s been hailed the best “songwriter of her generation”, “the new Dylan” and “the next Cobain”. The tags have been repeated ad nauseam in the international music press, as well as underneath YouTube videos since Barnett released her first album (Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit in 2015), and have been fervently trotted out again in the wake of her second, Tell Me How You Really Feel. So frequently are they referenced that the labels have become memetic, void of meaning.

*

There’s two billboards: one in Times Square and another on High Street, Northcote. They both advertise Barnett’s new music. The first is a spot placed by Spotify, which shows an image of Barnett playing guitar surrounded by some sleek, sans-serif strap-lines. The second billboard shows an image of the record cover—Barnett’s face close up and red-glowing—and beneath it, a loose hand-written ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’. Someone has taken the proposition literally and scrawled underneath, in similar loopy handwriting: ‘Well u can’t sing can’t play. Your fame is ephemeral.’

I am unnerved by each of these billboards. The first seems intent on stripping the life out of Barnett; she hangs trapped and suspended in monochrome as if unceremoniously dragged and dropped by an indifferent graphic designer into an [insert artist photo here] placeholder; flattened and condemned to Spotify’s proprietorship. The second seems unnecessarily mean-spirited. And yet, I don’t fully reject its argument.

While I’d say it’s unfair and unwise to hurl a declaration like that at an artist, Tell Me How You Really Feel, to me, does fall rather flat. It’s less lyrically ambitious than much of Barnett’s previous work—at least, less idiosyncratic, more direct, and perhaps more palatable for listeners—and the press—to latch on to. (Look, she’s struggling with success! She’s talking about online trolls! She’s quoting Margaret Atwood! It’s all so relevant!) She’s also shed some of her trademark descriptions of minute details and the self-contained narrative quality of her previous songs.

Barnett is adept at quietly shoe-horning into her lyrics large ideas about what it is to be a person in the world. Her short-story songs often contemplate modern domesticity, as in ‘Depreston’, and the one that announced her to America, ‘Avant Gardener’. One of the Barnett songs I have the most affection for is ‘History Eraser’. It’s inventive, playful; each line trips easily into the next:

I found an Ezra Pound and made a bet / That if I found a cigarette, I’d drop it all and marry you /Just then a song comes on: “You can’t always get what you want” / The Rolling Stones, oh, woe is we, the irony / The stones became the moss and once all inhibition’s lost / The hipsters made a mission to the farm / We drove by tractor there; the yellow straw replaced our hair / We laced the dairy river with the cream of sweet vermouth.

The lyrical approach on Tell Me How You Really Feel is more simple. Barnett’s gaze has turned inwards. To take one, brief, example: in the chorus of ‘The City Looks Pretty’ she sings “Sometimes I get sad / It’s not all that bad / One day maybe never / I’ll come around”. The phrasing is clever, but the words aren’t as peculiar. Some critics have praised this choice as a deliberate and clever paring down, but to me, the songs seem thinned out.

Barnett’s lyrics are occasionally angry on this album—it’s her most overt address of feminist themes—but the music itself is rarely allowed to fully rage. The exception is ‘I’m not your mother, I’m not your bitch’, a two-minute thrash of a song that summons the kind of fury the title suggests; here, Barnett’s rage is absolutely believable. In ‘Nameless, Faceless’ she addresses online trolls and drops in the line from Margaret Atwood into the chorus (“Men are scared that women will laugh at them / Women are scared that men will kill them”). But, the bouncy melody undercuts the message and the song stops short of becoming fully manic. For the most part, the record as a whole seems restrained, reigned in.

*

When a musician is plucked from their surroundings, their scene, their community, and placed into a new context, weird things can happen. In 2015, when Barnett’s star was on the rise and the American press scrabbled to make sense of her, to place her in the lineage of their musical understanding, they started to make some lofty claims. I have never really understood the Dylan comparisons. The source seems to be a Salon article, which opens:

“The amount of times people have said they’ve found the new Bob Dylan is almost comical at this point but — I have found the new Bob Dylan, and she’s Australian. The comparison really only goes as far as Courtney Barnett being as adept at rambling lyrical word puzzles as the ’60s forebear, since the main thing she’s protesting is how few people in the world seem to want to just hang out and joke around, but stay with me here.”

It’s a tenuous connection, barely plausible, and the writer admits to this. But it’s a tempting proposition all the same—and a news story in itself. The comparison has since been widely parroted; presented without context as an accepted truth. It’s something you’d stop for in a newsfeed.

The Cobain comparisons stand up slightly more convincingly—especially when you see Barnett and her band play live: she sings with more gravel and the guitar is allowed to more fully swell and screech, as if someone has let a boxed-up thing out into the air. Barnett has mentioned her teenage Cobain obsession and there is an occasional grunge to her music. But, it still seems fairly tenuous a connection. (As an aside: Is it meant to be the ultimate compliment that Barnett is bestowed with comparisons to mostly male artists? Has she transcended the barrier of her femaleness, been allowed in to the clubhouse?)

Perhaps these artist comparisons seem particularly strange from an Australian vantage point. There’s a conversational bent to many Australian songwriters: Paul Kelly and Dan Kelly after him, as well as that spate of guitar bands that formed in the mid- to late-2000s, sometimes grouped as “the Melbourne jangle” or that other, oft-maligned term “dole-wave”. Propelled by highly observational lyric writing, musicians like Darren Hanlon and Dick Diver (who Barnett often cites as a favourite band) and Jen Cloher, too, all use small, quotidian details as entry points into larger, quite profound ideas.

Ultimately, my vexation is not with Barnett’s music, but with the frenzied way in which she is often written about. It points to a problem with a lot of contemporary music coverage (‘coverage’ as I’d argue that ‘journalism’ and ‘criticism’ are two different forms). The narrative around the record overtakes the music that is on the record. And so much current criticism is painfully risk-averse. I suppose it makes sense: writers are pushed for time and wary of the legions of keyboard warriors who can type their own opinions right back (including the artist themselves). It’s easier to say something nice than to stick your neck out and be forced to properly defend a position.

Barnett has provided a sort of meta-commentary on this situation. Most famously in ‘Pedestrian at Best’ from her first album (“Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you”) and it’s here on the second, too. Barnett has said the title of this album is deliberately ambiguous. It could be something said to her by a friend, or said by her to a lover. Could it equally be aimed at the listeners or the reviewers? Tell me how you really feel… Do you actually think I am the incarnate soul of Kurt Cobain, or did you just read that on Pitchfork? There must be frustrations involved with being universally loved. And I don’t mean that sardonically—it would be a lot to process, a humble mind would become suspicious.

*

Music criticism has been suffering paroxysms of self-doubt since the advent of the internet and online streaming. Debates about its demise seem to flare up every year or so. Last year in the Wall Street Journal, Neil Shah examined the decline of the negative music review, noting how on the aggregate review site Metacritic there was not a single “red”—negative—music review for the year; whereas, movies and other media had been routinely panned by critics.

In 2016, for the New Yorker, Amanda Petrusich discussed her concerns about the rise of the insta-release and the need for a lightening quick critical response:

“No one wants to be a doddering relic, squawking about the glory of olden times, when we churned fresh butter and listened to new records for a couple of weeks before bestowing numerical scores upon them. But, for me, the idea that the culture is now not merely accepting but, in fact, demanding instantaneous critical evaluations of major works of art feels plainly insane.”

She describes the frenzied stresses of the modern critic, and skewers the group-think that is bred by the increased speed of criticism:

“Sharing enthusiasm with a virtual cabal of like-minded listeners is reassuring and often productive, but it can also create an echo chamber in which the same beliefs and texts get reiterated. The fission of divergent ideologies can be frustrating—even violent—but contending with a different worldview also challenges and expands a mind.”

The internet has brought the art and the artist closer together. From a marketing point of view, the personality of the artist can be as important as their music. Perhaps this has always existed to some extent, but it seems acute now. Readers seem more likely to conflate a negative critique of the art as a personal attack on the artist. I wonder if sometimes writers bite their tongues and steer clear of expressing negative opinions (about the art) for fear of seeming unsupportive of Australian musicians. Consider the conversation about how to regard the art when the artist is a wretched person: What if the idea goes the other way, too? When the artist is a good, very likeable person, do we consider their art more favourably because of this?

As a counterpoint: perhaps criticism is just happening in new, different ways. Perhaps Twitter conversations are a form of real-time thinking, deconstructing, critiquing. There’s an argument to be made that this eliminates the top-down, gatekeeper dynamic of old media, in which only a small number of people were allowed to speak. It wasn’t a perfect system before. But, online discussion can be frantic and shallow—both when perpetrated by the trolls that Barnett describes in ‘Nameless, Faceless’ and the nebulous “progressive” side as well.

These days there’s no major commercial imperative for lengthy, considered music journalism or criticism to exist. It seems like a lot of writers now approach music journalism like they might approach being in a rock band: fun for a little while before it’s time to settle into a “real” job. As a young writer—critic, journalist, whatever you want to call it—it seems sad  that there isn’t the infrastructure for writers that are just starting now to stretch and develop their skills, to learn how to be honest and clear-eyed observers and chroniclers of the culture as it rolls on by.

*

I’d link you to Curley’s article if I could, but you’d be redirected to the homepage of Music Junkee, part of the parent company (Sound Alliance) that bought out Mess+Noise in 2008. Mess+Noise is now gone, as is the Junkee-owned FasterLouder, alongside numerous street press and, as of earlier this year, so is the Australian imprint of Rolling Stone. I wonder about the repercussions of these losses.

It can be hard to say how you really feel, risky even. Throughout Tell Me, Barnett urges both kindness and genuine emotional expression, acknowledging that when grievances remain unsaid, relationships can become brittle. In criticism, too, surely sincere, reasoned critique has a much deeper value than hollow praise.

Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel
Release by Milk / Remote Control in May 2018


Kimberley Thomson is a journalist, editor and publisher. In 2016, she co-founded Swampland, a print publication dedicated to long-form Australian music journalism and photography.

2 comments

  1. It’s great to see someone thinking and writing so well about music and contemporary culture. Please don’t take this to be sarcastic: I’d love to read a companion piece that looked more directly at Barnett’s new album as such. Here you’ve done a great job of reviewing the cultural environment this album’s been released into — I’d be really interested to read more about you’re reactions to the music itself as you attempt to disentangle it from all that ambient noise.
    Thanks again for the writing. I’ll definitely be picking up a copy of Swampland next time I go past Mag Nation.

    Like

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