Thursday, May 24, 2018

album review: 'tell me how you really feel' by courtney barnett

I feel like I've opened up a lot of my reviews in recent weeks with, 'when I covered this artist last time, it didn't go well'... and yet while I'll definitely question my presentation in those older reviews, the more I've gone back to the actual points I was making, the more I'm convinced that my opinions haven't really changed.

And yet if we're talking about one of my most contentious reviews, Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit by Courtney Barnett stands as one of the big ones - and what was all the more exasperating is that I definitely understood the appeal. The flat disaffection masking deeper wells of depression, the jagged garage rock tones, the well-framed self-deprecating passive aggression, it had a very stark mid-90s indie rock veneer that I could respect... to a point. And that was the frustrating thing - I kept expecting this project to actually cut more deeply in its content and production, but that would require a greater amount of investment and focus that it didn't seem like Barnett brought to the table in comparison with her sharper peers, and while she provided a firm rationale why caring wasn't on her menu, it also meant I didn't really have the same interest either. And that disaffection couldn't help but feed into her collaboration with Kurt Vile last year Lotta Sea Lice, which I may have liked more if it had felt like a cohesive or engaging project than an extended workshopping session.

And thus I had some serious concerns about the critical reception to this record, nearly all of which was pointing a finger at those Kurt Vile sessions as an indicator of what was to come in neutering any sense of direction or edge or deeper punch... most of which I'd question was on there in the first place, but hey, it's not like my expectations were going to get any lower: what did I find on Tell Me How You Really Feel?

So here's the thing: I can definitely see why some of the fans taken in by more of the edge and disaffection of the debut might find this to be a tougher record to swallow - while the songs often feel better constructed there are fewer jagged edges and the songwriting doesn't quite bring the wallop of broken glass - oh, the bitter sarcasm is often still there, but the framing is slightly different this time around, and not in a way that's as immediately appealing. And that's kind of amusing to me because I actually might like this project a little more - no, it's not great, I can't promise I'd revisit any one song here much beyond this review, but Barnett's more focused writing is burrowing into a niche I like with this project and one that I think flatters her style a fair bit.

Granted, I have issues with her style as a whole, so let's get this out of the way now. As on previous records I've never really bought into her as a singer, with the sort of resigned, hangdog presence that might have been popular in the 90s with Gen X disaffection but of which I've never really found all that interesting - after all, if she can barely muster the energy to care, why should I? And that similar mid-90s aesthetic plays into a lot of her production and presentation, which to her credit manages to compensate for its relative lack of any significant edge by refining the melody lines or letting a little more atmosphere linger and curdle, from the thick, simmering low-end grind of 'Hopefulessness' to the deeper, liquid tones and kickdrums playing into the misty acoustics on 'Sunday Roast', which eventually kicks into one of the most catchy outros that Barnett has ever assembled. And that redoubled focus on hooks does lead to some tighter compositions - the sweet, fuzzy melody spiking off the deeper guitar phrases on 'Charity', the noisier tones tamping up the unsteady tension of 'Nameless, Faceless', the more defined alt-country guitar melody on 'Walkin' On Eggshells' to even more of the simmering, borderline punk grind of 'I'm Not Your Mother, I'm Not Your Bitch'. Hell, I can even appreciate the transition midway through 'City Looks Pretty', even if I'd argue that the back half of the song feels pretty underwritten, a consistent complaint around Barnett's work that really does hold true across a lot of this record too - sorry, there's just not enough cleverness of nuance in this introspection to get away with how plain and nondescript a lot of this language can feel, even in comparison to her debut. Granted, the focus does help her thematically and we'll get into why, but just because the songwriting doesn't fly off into pointless diversions didn't mean it had to be colourless. And on that subject, I still don't think the production does her any favours, and while the edge she does have is better integrated and balanced on these songs, there are songs where the balance of tones is just really flat, like the noisy riff slathered on 'Need A Little Time', or the odd gummy wiriness of the guitars and drums on 'Help Your Self'.

But for as much as some of this production feels like a slightly too-polished version of better indie rock in the 90s, the writing... well, on the surface feels much of the same, as Courtney Barnett shows herself most comfortable curling into a ball of self-conscious angst and barbs at anyone who would approach, for good or ill. And in some cases you can tell it's a survival mechanism and feels pretty justified - she's cutting against anonymous online trolls on 'Nameless, Faceless' and it's one of the better songs written on the subject, especially with the interpolation of Margaret Atwood's famous quote surrounding how women and men see each other. But from there it's hard to avoid the impression that Barnett is far from helping the relationships she describes on songs like 'Charity' and 'I'm Not Your Mother, i'm Not Your Bitch' and 'Help Your Self' and 'Walkin' On Eggshells'... until you come to the stark realization that Barnett is far too much of an introvert to just be referring to a string of guys or other people, especially when she provides so little detail about them... and that many of the questions could well be referring to herself and her own personal muses. 

And that's a recontextualization that gets interesting, because it humanizes the set of unfair expectations leveled against Barnett, especially by the music press - for as much as they all heralded her as the next big singer-songwriter of the 2010s, it's clear she never bought into her hype and is all the more self-conscious that complaining about that fact would look even worse. And yet with songs like 'Hopefulessness' she knows she has to rip off the band-aid and experience those jarring, uncomfortable insecurities, which plays into how she experiences the dispassionate city experience with a weird amount of comfort and levity on 'City Looks Pretty'. And for me, as someone who has never bought into the hype and projections, Barnett becomes a lot more sympathetic when she tears into her fickle muse on 'Charity', or how intensely aware she is of the introspection of her art on 'Need A Little Time' and what she's exposing, or the daring choice to call out her lack of greater knowledge on 'Crippling Self-Doubt And A General Lack Of Confidence' - which paradoxically shows a lot of confidence, even if she never wants to admit it. It's why her discomfort with generosity warring with validation on 'Help Your Self' resonates, or how the uncertain give-and-take of 'Walkin' On Eggshells' earns its weary tension, or how when you realize 'Sunday Roast' is referring to herself getting roasted in the spotlight, partially by the audience and partially by her own internal voices, and yet yearning for all to be heard despite that insecurity. And it's where the album's title reveals more depth - it's not Barnett talking about herself amidst endless contradictory deflections, but the audience telling how they really feel about her, as she's all the more self-aware of that emotional feedback relationship.

And it's a damn shame that more of the production and delivery doesn't get all the way there selling that message! Don't get me wrong, I get why she took on this disaffected approach - she might not have been able to manufacture the artistic distance from herself to narrow her internal focus otherwise - but as many listens as I gave this project, the execution never hit the emotional payoff of the intent in the writing - a little too sedate and polished. But overall, I'm giving this a very solid 6/10 and a recommendation, but more for thematic complexity and intent than the execution, and given how many fans consider this a letdown, you've been warned there. But otherwise... yeah, Courtney Barnett doubling down on self-awareness and metatext works for me, I'll take it.

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