Although it’s hard to offer up a novelty that’s truly novel to a been-there, heard-that listening public these days, there’s not much of a precedent for “Avant Gardener”, the slice-of-life psych-folk number that’s become the calling card for Aussie singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett. A little bit artsy and a little bit crunchy, as its name suggests, “Avant Gardener” is a free-form, free-associating trip, capturing an eventfully boring day in Barnett’s so-called life that begins with her sleeping in on a Monday morning and ends with her in anaphylactic shock in an ambulance. A slacker with a conscience or neuroses — or both — Barnett casts herself as the sort who feels guilty that her yard makes her neighbors “think we run a meth lab”, but not so much so that she doesn’t let it get into that state in first place. And it’s when Barnett tries to do something about it that the drama ensues, doing some weeding only to start “emphyseming” with thoughts of going into a lifetime of hospital debt racing through her head as she declares “I’m not that good at breathing in”, referring to both asthma inhalers and bongs.
But while “Avant Gardener” and her introductory effortThe Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas work well enough as a hodge-podge of quotable, what-the-heck-was-that? gestures, the force of Barnett’s musical personality provides a sense of coherence that makes what appears like a string of non-sequiturs come together into a sum greater than its parts. Often, pop outsiders like Barnett can be riddled by the irony that the idiosyncrasies that get them noticed to begin with are precisely the reasons why they get dismissed in the long run, but it’s easier to buy into what the 25-year-old indie eccentric is doing here because there’s a naturalness to her songwriting perspective that never feels put on or overly embellished. That’s the feeling you get when she explains her go-with-the-flow creative process on “History Eraser”, where she recalls how “in my dreams I wrote the best song that I’ve ever written… can’t remember how it goes” as she speak-sings breathlessly through references to Ezra Pound and the Rolling Stones trying to jog her memory only to come up with something that’s pretty close to that song of her dreams.
Even if Barnett’s reputation precedes her, it doesn’t obscure the fact that her overactive imagination isn’t just devoted to unfiltered storytelling, but to sparking unlikely emotional resonance in the wit and wisdom of her lyrics. So perhaps Barnett’s out-of-left-field perspective and off-the-beaten-path ramblings might be what grab your attention, but it’s her shrewd, if sometimes offbeat, observations on human nature that hold it. That’s in part because there’s a self-consciousness that goes with her stream-of-consciousness songs, most obvious on the parental back-and-forth on the jammy “Are You Looking After Yourself”, on which Barnett is torn between blowing off their advice and internalizing it enough that it nags at her, as she sings, “I don’t know what I was thinking / I should get a job,” half exasperatedly, half nervously. And though a good number of Barnett’s daydreaming songs are about being burned by the wrong guy, she still shows enough foresight and common sense on “Don’t Apply Compression Gently” to know that it’s not worth it to get stuck in a bad relationship just for the sake of being in one (“I may not be 100% happy / But at least I’m not with you”).
Better yet is when Barnett lets the instinctive ebb and flow of her music set the mood for her narrative songs, something you sense when she hits the right chords with the bouncing, saloon-y piano on the opener “Out of the Woodwork”. There, Barnett brings out a note of melancholy from the intuitive melody, lifting her typically monochromatic voice to hit the drawn out, lilting refrain of “I am normally pretty forgiving but only if you are.” Likewise, tone and theme line up on the VU-lite silhouette of “Anonymous Club”, as Barnett’s warm, feedback-kissed strum matches its shy romantic scene she depicts, while the understated psych-folk on “Canned Tomatoes (Whole)” creates a tender backdrop for her tentative pick-up lines, ending with her softly imploring, “You should probably call me more.”
Certainly, it wouldn’t hurt Barnett to have a little more of an internal editor, whether it’s to stop her from drifting and meandering musically or to keep her from offering up TMI, especially on “Lance Jr.”, when she sings “I masturbated to the songs you wrote.” But that tends to come with the territory for an artist who works the way Barnett does, one who’s better off going with whatever comes into her mind rather than trying too hard to harness those energies. And in more cases than not, it’s when Courtney Barnett gets caught up in her own head that her music gets stuck in yours.