courtney barnett tell me how you really feel

Album review: Courtney Barnett – ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’

Melbourne singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett achieved global success with her debut album Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit – so there’s just a tiny bit riding on the release of the follow-up later this week. She and her Milk! Records crew will be breathing a sigh of relief come release day, though, because Barnett’s second album is proof of the 30-year-old’s staying power.

Tell Me How You Really Feel opens with a yawning cavern of wobbling deep guitar strings, and follows with a recitation of platitudes originally devised to console. It’s almost sweet, until you listen properly. But when things go wrong, being told you should be “turning your broken heart into art” doesn’t make your heart feel better. And starting from there, Barnett gives us an object lesson in how to render intensity dispassionately. She barely raises her voice, but we can feel how much is going on inside.

And that’s plenty, as you’ll find out if you soak up Barnett’s latest album. Picking up where her prior, much lauded efforts left off, it’s a mélange of pointed observations, ebullient guitars, poignant reflections, and a bit of punk and funk peeking through the insulation from time to time.

Emotional contradictions run in every direction. ‘Nameless, Faceless’ is a nice little jaunty indie rock tune, except for the gripping specificity of the fear in the mind a woman can feel just walking, at the expense of men who’s worst concern is being laughed at. Or take ‘City Looks Pretty,’ which might win the award for most detached lyrical effort. Who cares about injured souls anyway? The band thrums mesmerically, as we learn once again that even when you’re lucky enough to think “you oughta be grateful,” it won’t necessarily make you feel any better.

There’s plenty of psychological insight as well, probing notes from inside relationships with friends, lovers, family… maybe office mates? OK, fine, Barnett may not have office mates, but the characters in tunes like ‘Charity’ and ‘Walking On Eggshells’ aren’t all people our narrator has chosen to spend time with. On the other hand (“And when we get going we’ll keep it sane, change is as good as a holiday”) some of these folks clearly are.

By the time we get to ‘Help Your Self,’ the band is really rocking. Barnett’s guitar is agile, tense, and strong, and it swaggers through the song and through your ears with attitude aplenty. You won’t listen to that without scrambling for a ticket to her next show in your home town. But all the way through the album, this assurance is matched by self-awareness, and by attention to what’s happening inside others’ minds as well. It’s affecting and engaging, and makes for some very tidy songwriting. Wrap it up in rock and roll this good, and you are looking at a winner.

Tell Me How You Really Feel will be released this Friday.

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