Courtney Barnett: A voice you need to hear
The very best rock ’n’ roll is about living in the moment as if there might not be another—“be here now” to the extreme, and to the point where being anywhere else doesn’t even seem like an option. That’s how I felt when I first saw Australian guitarist, singer, and songwriter Courtney Barnett leading a hard-hitting trio through the last of her eight sets at SXSW 2015. And that sense of irresistible urgency and absolute immediacy carries through on her stunning debut album Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit.
D.I.Y. origin stories and examples of the punk aesthetic don’t come any more convincing than Barnett’s: She borrowed money from her grandmother to self-release the two EPs that first won widespread attention, I’ve Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris (2012) and How to Carve a Carrot into a Rose (2013), and while she spent a year writing the songs for her first proper album, she didn’t share those tunes with her band until a week before the eight days of recording in Melbourne, the better to keep things as fresh and immediate as possible. Hell, the disc’s first single “Pedestrian at Best” came together even later than that—the recording was the first time the 27-year-old artist even sang the words out loud.
In the search for fellow travelers to put Barnett’s deft hooks, lyrical wit, and infectious drive in perspective, rock critics have been stumbling over themselves to drop names ranging from Lou Reed to Elvis Costello, and P.J. Harvey to the Go-Betweens, to say nothing of the many invocations of Nirvana. Like a growing number of young bands today, Barnett’s aesthetic owes a lot to the alternative ’90s: clean but crunchy, noisy but melodic, and sarcastic but earnest. But the Cobain comp really comes via her commitment to showing her smarts (in an art form that often values stoopid uber alles); her ability to inject thoroughly ferocious guitar work into otherwise sparkling and pristine pop song structures; a sense of dynamics and an unwavering intensity that makes slower moments such as “Depreston” and “Boxing Day Blues” every bit as effective as more rollicking tracks like “Elevator Operator,” “Dead Fox,” and “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party,” and a way of presenting herself as the perfect voice of her generation while simultaneously rejecting anything and everything implied by those dreaded words.
“Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you!” Barnett wails. “Tell me I’m exceptional and I promise to exploit you!”
I do believe that the warning she offers in “Pedestrian at Best” is merely what philosophers would call a deterrence machine. Because Barnett is indeed, like Cobain, a rock star in the very best sense of that hoary phrase. And onstage as well as on these 11 songs, there’s neither a hint of disappointment nor a whiff of exploitation.
Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (Mom + Pop)
Rating on the 4-star scale: 4 stars.