There is a freshness and truthfulness to Courtney Barnett’s music that seems incredibly foreign in a modern industry dead-set on rewarding the best and the brightest things out there. For the last 15 years or so, alternative music has thrived on competition. It may not even be conscious, but it is as if artists have an unspoken end-goal of outdoing any and all opponents and becoming the best, coolest, quirkiest, most experimental musician there is. “Hey, the Avalanches are making an hour-long album that seamlessly combines over 3,500 different samples and turns them into club music? Well, as Sufjan Stevens, I guess it’s time for me to get out my horns and violins and backup singers and make an album all about the folks down in Illinois…and mine will be 75 minutes! Beat that!” This is not a bad thing, for the most part. The idea that the bar is constantly being raised with each Since I Left You, or Kid A, or Illinois, or Night Falls over Kortedala is what makes this era of music so endlessly fascinating.
Along with this constant cycle of experimentation, praise, experimentation, however, is the idea that anything that fails to reinvent the wheel is inherently inferior to anything that does. The chasm between critical darlings and talentless hacks has never felt wider.
Enter Courtney Barnett, a soft-spoken Melbourne native here to reinvent the wheel by yanking it off the wagon and rolling it off a cliff. Based on just her first LP’s title, written in a lower-case scrawl over an MS Paint drawing of a rocking chair, it’s easy to dismiss Barnett as another iteration of The Murmurs or Rilo Kiley– decent enough, but ultimately swallowed up by the white noise of a thousand other artists that are almost indistinguishable from one another. It’s all too common for young women in indie-rock to go down a pastel-colored path of cutesiness that eventually wears thin. Thankfully, there is nothing cutesy about Barnett’s album.
Sometimes I Sit and Think… is the clearest view of uninterrupted thought I have ever seen in a rock album. Songs move from idea to idea at a blisteringly fast pace – most of them sound like first drafts that were improvised in the throes of hazy boredom. When I listen to “An Illustration of Loneliness” or “Small Poppies”, two standouts from the middle of the album, I can clearly envision Barnett laying down on her bed, aimlessly strumming her guitar, staring at the off-white ceiling, and looking out to her overgrown lawn.
I keep coming back to the word “clear”, when describing this album. Nothing about it seems inhibited by any sort of thirst for recognition or accolade – the album feels like it is about nothing but being alive. It compiles all the moments that other songwriters leave on the cutting room floor: house-hunting, buying organic vegetables, getting pissed off and skipping work as a middle-finger to the pervasive corporate world…this list goes on. The gimmick is that Barnett has no gimmick. She stands out in a genre overrun with ostentation by making what may be the least pretentious album I have ever heard.
Barnett’s songs do have a point – all songs do – but she is one of the best at hiding her songs’ direct messages. The meanings of her lyrics are buried below the tangible things she describes. On “Elevator Operator”, a young man fed up with the drudgery of his white-collar job decides to skip work, instead spending his day building can pyramids and watching the bustle of the city from a rooftop. Of course, on his way to the Nicholas Building, he trips on an unfilled pothole, surely left that way because somebody else decided to neglect their job just like him. It is a perfect, ironic slight at the subject’s laziness that feels so grounded and realistic that it’s hard to even notice without listening closely. In “Depreston”, perhaps Barnett’s most captivating song to date, she goes on a house-hunting trip to the suburbs. The song is comprised almost entirely of details from the house that she visits: She mentions a series of rails in the shower, a collection of vintage canisters, and - perhaps most unsettlingly – “a photo of a young man in a van in Vietnam.” The song is not about these things specifically, but what they do to Barnett’s mindset. Buying this house now feels less like a mere transaction of property and more like a tasteless transaction of someone’s life and memories. Courtney Barnett’s strength as a songwriter is her uncanny ability to draw big meanings from small things as they pass her by.
It is difficult to even begin to compare this album to anything else I have ever heard. Barnett’s vocal delivery is ambivalent, almost passionless, by design. She is an anomaly, and a challenging one to understand. She comes to us with basically no agenda to speak of (The one exception to this might be “Kim’s Caravan”, which tactfully presents an environmental message by employing imagery of a dead seal on the beach and an article about pollution in the Great Barrier Reef. It works because Barnett is willing to shoulder a lot of the blame for what is happening while still addressing her capacity to change.).
We as music fans tend to think our favorite artists – our Neutral Milk Hotels, our Sonic Youths, our Bob Dylans – with a sort of godlike recognition. While so many of her peers work specifically to push boundaries with as much grandeur and drama as possible, Courtney Barnett is content being the resident wallflower of indie rock. She may be the most human songwriter we have right now.