Australian indie eccentric Courtney Barnett made a name for herself on her own terms through quirky songwriting that got stuck in your head as she got lost in hers. After all, Barnett’s unlikely rise to prominence began with “Avant Gardener”, a surreal, slice-of-life narrative about going into anaphylactic shock that dictates all the non-sequitur thoughts racing through her mind in the back of an ambulance. But since then, the outsider artist has become a darling of scene insiders, so one big question about her first proper full-length Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit is whether her idiosyncratic songwriting can be something more than a niche novelty. That’s not to say, though, that the Melbourne-based Barnett seems all that impressed or overwhelmed by the adulation — or herself — considering that the first preview track from Sometimes I Sit is self-effacingly titled “Pedestrian at Best”, on which she mockingly warns her admirers, “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you.”
Indeed, the misleadingly tagged “Pedestrian at Best” is representative of the one-of-a-kind charms of Sometimes I Sit as a whole, as Barnett still runs with whatever thoughts that come into her head as her earlier songs do, while she’s also honing her craft and punching up her sound in ways that the rock star projections don’t actually seem that far-fetched. Basically a song addressing the situation she’s coping with now, “Pedestrian at Best” matches kicky Kinks-esque riffs to a stream-of-consciousness gush of contradictory feelings sorting through being in a position in life you never thought you’d have to deal with. Even as she plays the fish-out-of-water contrarian (“Tell me I’m exceptional / I promise to exploit you”), Barnett’s also vulnerably anxious, as the voices rambling in her head tell you — “I wanna wash out my head with turpentine, cyanide / I dislike this internal diatribe,” she speak-sings breathlessly. And yet, Barnett has an uncanny ability for not losing the listener on Sometimes I Sit, not just because she’s a captivating narrator, but because she has a knack for conjuring up warm, intuitive melodies.
On Sometimes I Sit, Barnett is able to find a balance between giving open rein to free associating any and all mundanely personal details that come to mind and striking a bright pop tone that compacts and condenses the more meandering trips collected on 2013’s The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas. “Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in NY)” portrays Barnett lovesick and homesick when she traveled abroad for the first time to CMJ in 2013, her insomniac mind wandering as she traces cracks in the wall, which leads her to daydreaming about a future foretold by palmistry, before she gets to a point that many can relate to when she tenderly recites the chorus, “I’m thinking of you, too.” The bristling noise-pop guitar of “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party” captures Barnett’s antsy, fussy feelings as palpably as her thumb-twiddling chorus of “I wanna go out, but I wanna stay home” does, as her dithering over plans for the night turns into her hemming and hawing over the state of a relationship.
Still, Barnett is at her best and most engaging when she digs deep into her experiences and pinpoints very specific details to articulate her own brand of post-millennial existentialism. On the late-era Velvet Underground-ish rocker “Dead Fox”, Barnett, in her best Lou Reed-like scat, relates her nervous sense of mortality by walking through her decision to spend a little extra on organic produce for her health’s sake and describing how a sneeze causes her to veer into oncoming traffic. And Barnett is at her most observant and wryly melancholy on “Depreston”, something like an episode of House Hunters gone to hell, as she tours a dilapidated “California bungalow in a cul-de-sac.” It’s an anthem to the dwindling possibility of living the same kind of middle-class life that was a reality just a generation before, the real estate bubble popping Barnett’s dreams of home ownership: So while Barnett gloats that she’s saving $23 a week making her own lattes, her realtor’s pushing the hard sell on a “deceased estate” by telling her, “If you’ve got a spare half a million / You could knock it down / And start re-building.” As the bittersweet tenor of her strummed guitar combines with a deadpan delivery that becomes more skeptical and weary as it goes on, “Depreston” is the kind of vivid vignette that only Barnett is capable of conveying through song, catchy and affecting in its own misery-loves-company sort of way.
But because Barnett’s always been a distinctive storyteller, where she’s grown the most visibly on Sometimes I Sit is with her musicianship. As a single, complete entity instead of two shorter works stuck together as The Double EP was, Sometimes I Sit is not just tighter and more cohesive as it should be, but it’s a more confidently proficient work as well. Whether you follow the narratives and obsess over the finer details or not, it’s clear that her pop ditties pack more of a wallop, like with the boppy character sketch opener “Elevator Operator” and the colorful psychedelic swirls of “Debbie Downer”. Yet what’s a bigger revelation are the jammier productions where Barnett really stretches herself, as with the reverb-y surrealism of “Kim’s Caravan” and the assured indie noodling on “Small Poppies”. On the latter, Barnett comes closer to reminding you of Stephen Malkmus than she does anywhere else, not as much for her wordy, bemused wit and flat affect, but actually more for her skewed, lolling guitar lines, which sound like they could be outtakes from Brighten the Corners. Maybe Barnett is more earnest than arch, but “Small Poppies” suggests that there’s yet another layer to her music, if it wasn’t rich enough already.
So Barnett pretty obviously succeeds on Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit in meeting a more mainstream audience at least a little bit of the way. But for those who aren’t willing to follow Courtney Barnett all the way as she goes on the rest of a twisting, turning path that’s uniquely her own, that’s their loss, not hers.