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Courtney Barnett: Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit

Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit is Courtney Barnett‘s first full-length offering, but it follows a pair of EPs (later repackaged as the compilation A Sea Of Split Peas) that have already established the 27 year old Melburnian as a spokesperson for a new wave of kids who – as if guided by the invisible inevitability of the 20 year revival cycle – have decided to style themselves as “Generation X: The Sequel”. Yes, it is once again cool to be a slacker, and if today’s model doesn’t so much “hate itself and want to die” as “feel slightly confused about things and want to share photos of its lunch on its social network of choice”, songs like “History Eraser” and “Avant Gardener” could serve as its anthems. On those tracks, and across both EPs, Barnett set out her stall as a sort of postmodern beatnik punk-pop poet, cleverly – and often hilariously – detailing the minutiae of modern life’s most mundane moments over charmingly ramshackle garage rockers; the former song barrelled through a dozen or so tiny glimpses of a blossoming relationship (“We caught the river boat downstream and ended up beside a team of angry footballers/ I fed the ducks some krill then we were sucked against our will into the welcome doors of the casino“) whilst the latter recounted the time out heroine suffered some sort of allergic reaction/ anxiety attack hybrid whilst pulling up weeds, resulting in an ambulance trip (“The paramedic thinks i’m clever cos i play guitar/ I think she’s clever cos she stops people dying“) and a slightly bruised ego: “I take a hit from an asthma puffer/ I do it wrong/ I was never good at smoking bongs/ I’m not that good at breathing in.”
Whilst much of the Split Peas material effectively constituted a big, ambivalent shoulder shrug, Barnett’s debut proper finds her taking on bigger issues, and she handles the upward step like a seasoned pro. It would be wrong to suggest that her lyrics are the only thing to get excited about – the tunes here are top-notch, ranging from chugging Modern Lovers-esque singalongs to sugar-coated In Utero homages and blistering psych-blues freak-outs, and credit is due to her wonderfully named and extremely able backing band The Courtney Barnetts – but they are undeniably the big draw; each song is packed full of words, which sound like an obvious thing to say but it is meant in the most literal sense, motormouth Barnett excitedly spewing forth so much prose that one feels breathless just trying to take it all in. On first single “Pedestrian At Best” she flies out of the gate with a barrage that is part mission statement and part confessional (“I love you, I hate you, I’m on the fence, it all depends/ Whether I’m up or down, I’m on the mend, transcending all reality/ I like you, despise you, admire you/ What are we gonna do when everything all falls through?/ I must confess, I’ve made a mess of what should be a small success/ But I digress, at least I’ve tried my very best, I guess“) before imploring admirers and potential benefactors not to put too much faith in her lest she disappoint them and turns their folding money into origami. As befits a superstar slacker, the reluctance to offer her self up for scrutiny is there for all to see, but Barnett has a lot to say, and she’s going to say it regardless of who is or isn’t listening.
The unstoppable verbal torrent is enough to sandblast a permanent smile onto the face of anyone with even the slightest appreciation for the joys of language, so much so that it takes a while to realise Barnett isn’t always being funny. “Small Poppies” is an apparent appeal for less bitchiness among her peers (“An eye for an eye for an eye for an eye for an eye/ I don’t believe in that/ Why can’t we just talk nice?”) whilst “Elevator Operator” finds her trying to cheer up a suicidal teen (“I would kill to have skin like yours”); on “Dead Fox” she threads a line from chaos on the motorway to overworked delivery truck drivers to supermarkets selling genetically modified food (“A friend told me they put nicotine in the apples“) using the kind of Technicolor descriptions (“Taxidermy kangaroos are littered in the shoulders/ A possum Jackson Pollock is painted on the tar”) you might expect from the writers of The Itchy & Scratchy Show. Later we find her viewing a potential property purchase in a dour, crime-ridden suburb she’s nicknamed “Depreston”; having stopped visiting coffee shops (“I’m saving twenty three dollars a week“), she’s ready to buy a bungalow and settle down, but her ability to concentrate on floorboards and south-facing windows fails her when she spots “the handrail in the shower/ A collection of those canisters for coffee tea and flour/ And a photo of a young man in a van in Vietnam” – the remnants of the recently deceased previous occupant.
Without wanting to venture into the murky realms of psychoanalysis, it’s interesting to observe that whilst Barnett is more than happy to talk (and talk, and talk) about pretty much any subject that pops into her head, she rarely addresses her own emotions in any great detail. The aforementioned ephemera at the “Depreston” house is noted, for example, but any feelings it might stir up go unmentioned. On “An Illustration Of Loneliness (Sleepless In New York)” she lays awake on her own, far from her partner, but although the chorus consists of the simple admission “I’m thinking of you too“, the verses find Barnett counting the cracks in the wall, which remind her of the lines on her palm, which makes her think of fortune telling, which makes her ponder her destiny, which brings her to thoughts of death. Is she just easily distracted, or is it an avoidance tactic, a way of boxing up her feelings and hiding them under the bed? Certainly, she never resorts to anything as explicit as “I miss you” or “I wish you were here”, and each time she cycles back to the chorus it feels as though she’s having to drag herself back to the point; even towards the song’s end, when she allows herself to wonder which corner of the moon her other half is seeing, the (one-way) conversation quickly turns to the things they might be doing – swimming, watching a movie – that Barnett would normally be doing too.
And yet, rather than creating an emotional void, Barnett’s refusal to drill too deeply into her own personal well actually opens Sometimes I Sit up, making it more relatable and a whole lot more enjoyable than your standard, overwrought first-person songwriter fare. In presenting her observations and recollections as matter-of-factly as she does, it’s as if Barnett is viewing herself through a camera lens, like Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm; warts and all, without any kind of filter, from an onlooker’s perspective, giving minimal time to inner turmoil and simplifying thought processes so that she can concentrate on deeds and conversations and the consequences of her actions. It’s the musical equivalent of car crash TV, with all of the awkwardness replaced with laughs, and it’s utterly compelling. If I really wracked my brain I might be able to produce a list of a dozen names – out of the thousands and thousands from the last sixty-plus years of popular music – of artists who have displayed such fierce intelligence and wit in their lyrics and actually made us want to smile, rather than squirm in awkward, embarrassed discomfort: Dylan, Costello, Morrissey, Cocker – an exclusive club indeed, but Barnett belongs in it without a doubt. It would seem that writing smart songs with a sense of humour is a seriously tricky business, but Courtney Barnett makes it look like the easiest thing in the world.
Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit is out March 23/ 24 via Marathon Artists/ Mom + Pop Music; check out “Pedestrian At Best” and “Depreston” below.



About foamhands

My name is Michael Dix; I'm a decade or so past being down with the kids, but to me new music never gets old. Apparently I like music that sounds like faulty kitchen appliances and ritual slaughter; really I just like what I like, whether that happens to be indie, pop, punk, hip hop, metal, electronica, Afrobeat or jazz. Follow me on Twitter @FoamHandsBlog to receive notifications of new posts and the occasional random brain-fart, and please share links wherever you can. Enjoy!

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