Wednesday, April 8, 2015

album review: 'sometimes i sit and think, and sometimes i just sit' by courtney barnett

I've mentioned in the past that I'm not a fan of 'twee' music, music that emphasizes willful immaturity and cuteness and normalcy for its own sake. Part of it is the aesthetic - bubblegum pop can work really well when it's done right for example - but the general aesthetic and atmosphere just turns me off. Part of it is I have a flair for the bombastic and dramatic - I like power metal for god's sake - but I reckon it runs deeper than that, because it's not like I don't like regular, down-to-earth human stories. Hell, I listen to country music and have praised artists who pull their inspiration from the most mundane of details. But to me, the combination of a willfully immature tone or sound and a choice to go for a more mundane or 'twee' approach just turns me off.

And it seems a lot of this music coasts by on relatability, where as a critic things get tricky. I'm not going to deny that there's a factor to being able to relate to an artist or sound that influences why people like it - it lends a degree of authenticity to the experience - but I'd argue there should be more than that. For me, the best artists can make that connection with their audience regardless of the stories that they're telling. On the other hand, I tend to react negatively when artists try to elevate the very mundane into something to connect with their audience and maybe along the way make it mean something. Even coming from me, it smacks of pretentiousness, a cheap way to connect with an audience without the imagination to push more boundaries. And considering so much of it doesn't play for bigger drama, it strikes of trying to find something powerful where there really isn't much there.

As such, I had a real sinking feeling going to cover Courtney Barnett, Australian singer-songwriter who had won a lot of critical acclaim for her embrace of fragments of 90s grunge, garage rock, and hints of very 'mundane' lyricism. Her debut follows two very well-received EPs, and this looks to be her most critically-acclaimed to date. As such I'm almost obliged to cover it while I work through the back catalogues of Laura Marling and Sufjan Stevens to review their albums. And even though I expected this would not be my thing at all, I vowed to give it a fair chance - part of my goals this year would be covering music outside of my usual comfort zone. So, with that, how is Sometimes I Sit And Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit?

Well, much to my surprise, I did get something out of this album - and in a strange way, it's not really because of the album itself. No, the odd connection I got with this album came through an entirely different work and indeed an entirely different medium of art: television. Because the thought that struck me midway through this record and wouldn't leave was this: if the character Jessa from HBO's Girls ever made an album with any vestige of self-awareness, it would be Courtney Barnett's Sometimes I Sit And Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. Now does this realization make the record good? Well, again, on some level, it's not my thing so it's harder to evaluate, but the more I listened through it the more I found myself fascinated by the odd connection which at least allows me to understand some dimension of it.

So to explain all this, I need to give you some background on Girls and Jessa in particular. You might have seen the early promos saying the showrunner and lead. She's actress Lena Dunham was the 'voice of our generation' or some nonsense like that, but as an evaluation of Gen Y, she's not far off. Underemployed, overeducated, more outwardly self-absorbed, completely disdainful of career half because we're terrified we'll end up like our parents and half because we're not getting anything close to stable employment, it's the 'ME generation' crafted by an entire generation of parents telling their children they were special and perfect and then not being able to back it up when confronted with reality. Now the character of Jessa comes from an offshoot of that, the sort of faux-bohemian who has spent her life traveling, doing hard drugs, then cutting and running when things get too real. You all have this friend - on some level the worldliness and free spirit is attractive, even enviable, but the longer you're around this person, the more you find them insufferable for their complete inability to face the consequences and somehow still managing to get by or even prosper - to quote Kevin Smith, 'failing upward'. And Lena Dunham on some level gets this, showing Jessa's life careen from drug-fuelled parties and concerts to failed relationships and rehab centers and the slow toll all of it has taken, of which she actually is self-aware and terrified of facing the reality of it all.

Now how is all of this related to Courtney Barnett? Well, as I said, the more I listened through this album, the more I saw the direct parallel between the way Jessa is framed on Girls and Barnett's writing, which really does take center stage on this album above instrumentation or production or even her own delivery, which drifts back and forth between fast-paced spoken word and gracefully riding the melody. And I'll give her this, there's some strong technical songwriting on display here in terms of structuring cadence and flow in cramming so many details into her writing to set the scene. So what is this album trying to say? Well, as I said, it's as if Jessa's brand of self-aware, underhanded snark bled into many of these songs, the first and most aggressively abrasive example being 'Pedestrian At Best', where she's sick of getting put on a pedestal and proceeds to explode into a self-flagellating, passive-aggressive mess - and even if she's addressing the audience or the industry as some claim, she's doesn't help her situation. And it's not the first time that this album descends into self-absorbed self-deprecation in order to disguise her terrible or stupid behaviour: her simmering anger and petty sniping at 'Small Poppies' for little adequately explained reason, her attempt to impress someone swimming in a lane next to her where she nearly drowns in 'Aqua Profunda!'; her incessant indecisiveness about going out to have fun on 'Nobody Really Cares If You Don't Go To The Party', where even the title seems to be mocking her; or the jaded depression of 'Debbie Downer'. And when it's not aggressively abrasive, it's inane, like the petulant whine of 'Elevator Operator' where the protagonist blows off work to engage in the simplest of dreams of playing God, or the rambling of 'An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York)', where there is some interesting imagery surrounding loneliness but basically boils back to a standard track pining for an ex. Now to be fair, much of the framing does seem to highlight that Courtney's behavior isn't a good thing - it's reckless and petty and self-obsessed and directionless, and when this album chooses to step back and take more of a breath and actually tackle something a little more real, it can cut a little deeper. 'Depreston' for instance, talks about a move out to the suburbs and the loss of individual flavour into gentrified anonymity, and the inevitability of 'conventional adulthood' hits far harder. Or the depression of 'Kim's Caravan', where there are fragments of suicidal tendencies that try to underline the depression underscoring this record, and then she reads about parts of the world that are far worse off and reconsiders. Hell, with the ending track 'Boxing Day Blues' where she admits she doesn't have a clue what the hell she's doing, you could make the argument that the album is basically a long-form examination of depression... or at least the framing is suggesting that.

And here's where things get tricky, because I can have real empathy for those going through depression, how their behavior is influenced by a chemical imbalance and how the things they might say or do might not reflect their intentions. It's clear that the album is framing it like that to utilize that empathy and make Courtney somewhat relatable. But it doesn't excuse all of their behavior, and when you get such a lengthy display of passive-aggression with so much of it feeding into her world, it's hard to get invested beyond just the relatability factor. And it gets even harder when you have tracks like 'Dead Fox', which is trying to address exploitation of the environment by corporations, but there's no conviction to any of Courtney's small scale 'protests' - she seems aware that said messages matter on some level, but why should the audience buy into them when it's clear it's so half-hearted for her? And that's one of the things that really bugs me about this record, because it's brushes up against reality and real issues that can drive potent drama, even if they're very small - I'm not asking for existential deeper meanings, and I don't think Courtney's trying to give them - but she would rather deflect and focus on her character's very small and inane point-of-view, which is a lot harder to stomach given that character and does a disservice to the actual issues she tries to discuss. Now granted, it all could feed into an arc of Courtney needing to figure out herself and find some clarity, but like our protagonist, the album would prefer to avoid that conversation entirely.

And you know, this could all make for an interesting exploration... if the actual music and performance was anything special. And when it takes so much of a backseat to the lyrics, the songs become more memorable for the words than any particular melody or groove. For an album claiming to pull a lot from garage rock it's nowhere close to abrasive or lo-fi, and only fragments of a guitar tone and some washed out reverb to suggest any psychedelic influence - most of this record plays very safe. On most of these tracks the most interesting thing is some interweaving guitar melodies, but the bass tone is muddy and guitar licks that could have more of an edge like on 'Pedestrian At Best' or 'Dead Fox' bleed across each other in a surprisingly unflattering way. Now that's not saying there aren't melodies, but if you compare them to to, say, Ex Hex's more defined riffs and hooks or Sleater-Kinney's more ragged textures, the indulgent sides of the instrumentation starts to show through. 'Small Poppies' is probably the most egregious example, where I actually liked the distant, squealing solos as the song proceeded until they didn't evolve more to compensate for the underwritten lyrics over the course of seven minutes. 'Kim's Caravan' is better, if only because there's some ominous creaking swell and a washed out crescendo that builds into a pretty potent wall of noise, but still, nearly seven minutes, and the ending, like many of the songs on this album especially the half-formed 'Aqua Profunda!', feels abortive. I did like more of the country flavour of 'Depreston', but it's nothing Lydia Loveless or Lucette haven't done better. And with few exceptions, most of the instrumental tones on this album are brighter and more upbeat, which tonally rarely compliments the lyrics well, and when you have songs where it barely seems like Courtney gives a damn, why should the audience?

Look, I get why people might find this record charming or engaging, and I'm not denying she's got talent as a songwriter in a technical sense. But coming back to the Girls example, the appeal of this album lies entirely if you can find Courtney Barnett's 'character' charming or relatable - and there's a reason Girls is focused not on Jessa, but on Hannah, who actually has drive and goals even if her expectations and ego are wildly out of balance. Because Jessa's character only ever got interesting when she was forced to confront reality, and I could say the exact same thing about this record. And while we got snippets of the underlying emotion that drove the better emotions of this record, the underwhelming and safe instrumentation and delivery coupled with lyrics that walked the line of insufferable really got exasperating to listen through. And self-deprecating framing and hints of more below the surface don't really cut it when the album would prefer to engage in trite ordinary moments that add up to a lot less. So for me, it's a strong 5/10 and only a recommendation if you find the 'character' of Courtney Barnett interesting, or this brand of twee-flavoured music workable. I sure as hell don't, and this album is a prime reason why.

No comments:

Post a Comment