The first moments of Courtney Barnett’s latest album, Tell Me How You Really Feel, sound reminiscent of those of ‘Kim’s Caravan’ from her 2015 debut, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. However, unlike the earlier track, which sees the brooding opening guitars become a howling penultimate song, ‘Hopefulessness’ slowly assembles itself into a more controlled, but suitably stirring opener. Courtney Barnett knew what people wanted her to produce, and she has sauntered off in another direction regardless.
2015’s widely-acclaimed release saw Barnett seemingly emerge fully-formed as a sharp storyteller backed by fantastic riffs. Following this, as well the impressive 2013 double LP A Sea of Split Peas, she was successfully nominated for a number of awards. Her style was fresh, frenetic and fun and thus her next release inevitably had a lot to live up to.
There is no denying that this one lacks the immediacy of her others; songs with the frantic energy of ‘Pedestrian at Best’ or the instant appeal of ‘Avant Gardener’ are noticeably absent. Fans simply expecting a repeat of the likes of these, and thus an immediate first listen pay-off, may well be disappointed.
Courtney Barnett knew what people wanted her to produce, and she has sauntered off in another direction regardless.
It does however mean that there are fewer gimmicks here. Gone are the doodled artworks, replaced instead with an intense crop of Barnett’s face. In the previous releases, she constructed a scratchily drawn world, specialising in endearing vignettes of Australian life. As the title aptly suggests, the lyrics in this album are simply more introspective, focusing on an internal world of criticism, doubt and insecurity, with ‘Need a Little Time’ musing ‘I need a little time out from me’. However, listening closely through the characteristically languid vocals, the lyrics ultimately provide words of quiet self-belief and reassurance. ‘Hopefulessness’ notes ‘Your vulnerability, stronger than it seems’ whilst ‘Help Your Self’ sees Barnett seemingly remind herself between lines to ‘breathe out, breathe in’.
I admittedly found myself losing interest somewhat in the middle. Ironically, some of the songs that most closely resemble the style of her previous releases are also the least interesting. The scratchy guitars and vocals are there, but those hooks to keep you coming back arguably less so, despite the striking lyrics (see the Margaret Atwood inspired chorus of ‘Nameless, Faceless’).
However, a satisfying conclusion comes in the final trio of songs, of which the sly earworm ‘Help Your Self’ is one. The last track, ‘Sunday Roast’, despite the title hinting at a return to charming reflections on the tedium of everyday life, is an appropriate summation of the album. Tentative but soothing on opening, it cruises to an uplifting end accompanied by a pre-teen Courtney’s mantra of ‘keep on keeping on’.
Courtney’s previous albums are openly sparkling; they are immediately appealing and distinctive. Her new album, in contrast, is more contemplative and therefore requires a more attentive ear. It is in no way analogous with her previous releases, nor, admirably, is it trying to be.