Review Summary: You deserve better, it's true
Standing on the same stage as Courtney Barnett was a trip. Even with me not being a fan at the time, there was a surreality to the close proximity. She exuded a rock star persona perhaps more than any of the artists I helped film during the Pitchfork Music Fest. As I crouched in the corner wrapping camera wires, doing my best not to be distraction to the sea of fans before us, I watched her with fascination. Her movements and style were undoubtedly confident, but there was a lack of that same conviction in her songs. She of course wowed me with moments like the violent guitar solo of “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch,” and the pleasant but affecting chorus of “Need a Little Time,” but overall the wide majority of songs blended together into a harmless pop-rock splurge of monotonous riffs and pleasant but redundant choruses. It might have just been the pounding bass or the squashed sound quality muffled by my earplugs, but I was a little let down. I just didn't get what all the hubbub was about.
But when I jammed her latest record as soon as I got off that night, I was immediately taken aback by the opener. Also the lengthiest track on the album, it had plenty of time to build from its gloomy guitar picking into a pounding atmospheric swirl. I was then thrown into the charming “City Looks Pretty,” which features such a catchy and easygoing vibe that the listener is quickly lulled into a relaxed head-bob even before it turns to a country-esque bridge to seal the deal. Both of these studio tracks exuded far more nuance and artiness than anything her performance hinted at. By the time I had made my way through the aggressive crunch of “Nameless, Faceless” and the aforementioned lovely highlight “Need a Little Time,” I had gotten the point: Tell Me How You Really Feel
is a great collection of simple, crunchy rock tunes. It’s an album by mode of delivery, but in terms of cohesion it’s ten separate tracks. This isn’t a bad thing, as the differing themes and flavors add a lot of variety a record that could otherwise easily become monotonous.
The second half especially comes dangerously close to that however, as the album is quite a bit top heavy. Tunes like “Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence” and the plodding “Help Your Self” fall prey to that same thing I noticed onstage; they’re enjoyable in the moment, but don’t warrant much thought afterwards. And perhaps that’s the problem. The majority of the songs here are good, great even, but the moment that they’re over or you put on more critical glasses, they just doesn’t stick. Only a couple highlights truly break through to become semi-essential tunes for your memory banks to callback every so often.
And believe me, it’s not that I don’t like Courtney Barnett. Especially after hearing her ambition and talent come through on an album rather than diluted on the stage, there’s got an incredible charm to her voice and lyrics, and there’s a variety of great guitar work from her on here. It’s more that I feel that there’s something more
brimming in the background here. Something that she’ll have to really let spill over to capture her full potential. Once that happens, I know that she’ll have a truly memorable and challenging record to gift us with, one that better channels her confidence and conviction she so easily displayed onstage. But this album isn’t quite it. Not just yet.