Review Summary: Oh the humanity
Everyone is probably going to like this album. I try to insulate myself from external opinions before I write reviews but I have a feeling that accolades are going to rain down and a niche for this type of music will be further carved out. Courtney is a unique voice in modern music which will no doubt propel her into the limelight further than a soft spoken girl playing local gigs in Australia could ever imagine; a fact which she acknowledges repeatedly on this album. Most notably, the introspection on “Pedestrian at Best” reveals how she’s going to cope with the expectations and laurels: by doing what she wants to.
And thank god for that. What she brings to the table is nothing technically exceptional, instrumentally astounding, particularly poignant, socially meaningful or vocally stunning. The greatest asset she’s got to present is herself: a witty lyricist, a unique story-teller, painfully likable and most importantly, unabashedly unique. She draws you into her world and it’s so cool and pleasant you don’t want to leave. It is precisely because of these qualities that this album will pick up steam around the interwebs and attract more to the gospel that is Courtney Barnett. Tracks like the opener, “Elevator Operator” is a prime example of how her vivid imagery, exceptional storytelling blends seamlessly with pop sensibilities combine into a lovely tune. “Pedestrian at Best” gets introspective; the tongue comes slightly out of the cheek here: it's more straightforward honesty and more aggressive tone is a bit of a shift in direction for Courtney, but will no doubt be a top hit. But in my humble opinion the real gems on the album can be extracted in “Small Poppies” and “Depreston” where all the best elements of Courtney come together again. The former starts as a beautiful meandering, Courtney letting her melancholy gracefully thread in and out. It’s subtle tension and emotions gracefully build and release organically without sacrificing the characteristic atmosphere. Simple self-deprecation “I used to hate myself but now I think I’m alright” or “I don’t know quite who I am but oh man am I’m tryin’… I make mistakes til I get it right” frame the song perfectly and endear the listener with charms she alone possesses. And Depreston is one a fantastic and strange little track about buying a house which exudes personality and lets her sharp wit and simple, driven lyricism carry the song. So I’m really glad that I get more kindling to stoke the fires of my huge crush on Courtney Barnett.
And yet. When I first heard, and subsequently fell in love with A Sea of Split Peas, I was ecstatic. But this elation was tinged with a bit of sadness. The album itself was gorgeous, the songwriting was consistently tight, the lyrics witty, brutally honest and introspective in the most relatable way, charming and immersive. All of which could be replicated for years to come. However, it's the rampant idiosyncrasies and frighteningly intimate nature which made the album truly wonderful and would make it nearly impossible to replicate, especially in the face of a wider fan base.
I thought if anyone could do it, it was her. So it is with a mixture of trepidation and anticipation I clicked play when the first track off the new album “Pedestrian at Best” came out. How ironic that would turn out to be. After a few seconds, my heart sank because I knew the magic was not quite there. Not bad per se, but just a little emptier than before. Everything about Sometimes I Sit, is short of A Sea of Split Peas. Particularly after the first five songs, in my crotchety opinion, the album degrades significantly. “Aqua Profunda”, is pleasant and funny enough but is quickly forgettable and insubstantial, which also characterizes some of the latter half. But tracks like “Kim’s Caravan” or “Boxing Day Blues” are downright dreary. “Dead Fox” and “Nobody Cares if You Go to the Party” really rub me in the wrong way. The lyricism on these are just not as sharp as you would expect, the sentiments are rather annoying at times and the way the tracks come together is just not quite up to the standard I would expect.
However, the bulk of my complaint aren't with the individual songs. The songwriting across the board is not nearly as strong. Tracks like “History Eraser” or “Avant Gardener” or my personal favorite, “Anonymous Club”, are all tracks which are both instantly recognizable and memorable. There are some good tracks on this new album but nothing as definitive. The deeper cuts are not comparable and while the sonic progression is evident in its punkier mood, I think the best moments on this new album are when it channels the old Courtney. Speaking of which, I felt a lingering sense of deja vu at times, as though I've heard the melodies, phrases or hooks from the last album. However the most dire omission is the character and immersion that personified and glorified Split Peas. Are these elements there? Yes, which is why people will find this album appealing. But it no longer feels as intimate or personal. Split Peas felt like Courtney was addressing the listener as a journal of sorts, unfiltered, original and confidential. There's just something about the new album which creates a bit of distance, like moving out of a cozy little coffee shop to a bar. Which is wholly understandable and sensible for the long term, but takes away something unique which I'd hoped would be more essential.
So while I’m glad that this album maintains some of it's established identity, I fear there’s something beautiful and personal missing. Like a friend who you've reconnected with and who you're still close with but who is less weird than you remember and won’t confide in you the things she used to. Perhaps it’s pure nostalgia blinding me, and I’m glad she’s got a lot more friends now, but I can't shake the feeling that something special is slowly drifting away.