Courtney Barnett‘s new album Tell Me How You Really Feel closes with a calm meditation on friendship and togetherness. “Sunday Roast” may offer some “sweet relief”, but it comes after the high cost of living that the first nine tracks explore. Barnett, in her anxiety and frustration, earns a nice dinner with a kind friend by the time the disc closes, and after following her insights for an album, listeners may be ready to pass the gravy, too. Barnett keeps much of the same aesthetic that’s been earning the Australian indie-rocker praise and even a Grammy nomination, but she does shift tone just enough to capture the heightened feeling of the new album.
That tonal shift – and this is both good news and bad news – is subtle enough not to be jarring but not enough to mark clear movement in Barnett’s art. It’s only her second proper full-length, after all, though after a couple of EPs (best known as
The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas), a true debut album, and a collaboration with Kurt Vile, it feels as if she’s a long-time part of the scene. With that in mind, Tell Me How You Really Feel might be the culmination of her stylistic development. Her laconic vocals and easy groove (sometimes offset by angry guitars) open the way for both her wit and unexpected intensity. This album sounds of a piece with her past, if a bit more sinister, and it’s no worse for that similarity, particularly as she continues to mix in casual lines with sharp expression.
The disc’s opening song’s title “Hopefulessness” gives away what’s to come, a processing of emotions like fear, insecurity, and hopelessness with a certain, but not total, reservation about something better. When Barnett sings, “Take your broken heart / Turn it into art” or “Your vulnerability stronger than it seems / It’s okay to have a bad day,” she’s facing theoretical adversity with profound couplets. Instead, she comes away with the best she can while stumbling through real demands. “City Looks Pretty” takes on extreme introversion (probably social anxiety) with lazy lines like “Sometimes I get sad / It’s not all that bad” and personal epiphanies like “Friends treat you like a stranger and / Strangers treat you like their best friend, oh, well”, a concise thought on the effects of fame.
Barnett’s ultimate breakdown comes on the oddly poppy “Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence,” where she’s joined by Kim and Kelley Deal of the Breeders. They ask her how she really feels, and she replies over and over, “I don’t know / I don’t know anything.” The song suggests personal self-doubt, but little nuggets give away the influence of a harmful personality in her life. The catharsis of getting that feeling out doesn’t negate the subtle commentary on toxic people.
Much of the album deals with the personal, but Barnett never shies away from social commentary (assuming the two categories could be fully separated anyhow). Single
“Nameless, Faceless” (with a musical touchstone near “Boris the Spider”) hinges on the Margaret Atwood quote, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Barnett sings of the dangers of walking through a park at night, the unreliability of sexual assault prosecution, and the possible origins of some dangerous attitudes, all in a catchy and complex song. Following track “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch” offers a punky two-minute kiss-off. It’s a little noisy and a little artless, but it’s an effective moment in the course of the album.
These threads all draw together to capture a general sense of unease, whether from personal issues or public dangers. Barnett’s vocal delivery lets her toss off simple lines or sharp perceptions with ease, often causing the latter to jump out. It’s a method that’s worked well for her and offers a fully developed sense of time and place on
Tell Me How You Really Feel. Thinking about the arc of Barnett’s career, it may prove to be the peak of this sound, which is not yet redundant and still a strong fit for her vision. How she really sounds might change if she’s capping off an early run of strong albums with this one.