Courtney Barnett Makes Ennui Vivid On Debut Album
Courtney Barnett is an Australian singer-songwriter in her late 20s who's just released her first full album. It's called Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit. Barnett fills her songs with details about things she observes around her, everyday details that Fresh Air rock critic Ken Tucker says she somehow manages to infuse with a freshness rare in any songwriter, let alone one this young.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Courtney Barnett is an Australian singer-songwriter in her late 20s who's just released her first full album. It's called "Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit." Barnett fills her songs with details about things she observes around her, everyday details that rock critic Ken Tucker says, she somehow manages to infuse with a freshness rare in any songwriter, let alone one this young.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AN ILLUSTRATION OF LONELINESS, SLEEPLESS IN NY")
COURTNEY BARNETT: (Singing) I lay awake at 4 staring at the wall, counting all the cracks backwards in my best French - reminds me of a book I skim-read in a surgery all about palmistry. I wonder what's in store for me. I pretend the plaster is the skin on my palms and the cracks are representative of what is going on. I lose a breath. My love-line seems intertwined with death. I'm thinking of you too.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Courtney Barnett is, in her scrupulously precise and somewhat modest way, a daring artist. She fills her songs with close observations and striking images. In a swimming pool, for example, she says she, quote, "sunk like a stone, like a first owner's home loan." Barnett makes indecision and ennui vivid, feelings you recognize in yourself but rarely hear articulated in pop songs.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOBODY REALLY CARES IF YOU DON'T GO TO THE PARTY")
BARNETT: (Singing) You always get what you want, and you don't even try. Your friends hate it when it's always going your way, but I'm glad that you've got luck on your side. You say definitely maybe. I'm saying probably no. You say you sleep when you're dead. I'm scared I'll die in my sleep. I guess that's not a bad way to go. I want to go out, but I want to stay home. I want to go out, but I want to stay home.
TUCKER: That's called "Nobody Really Cares If You Don't Go To The Party," and how right she is, eh? Its chorus of, I want to go out, but I want to stay home is a tiny manifesto of indecision. The artistic joke and triumph of the situation being that by choosing those words and by surrounding them with guitars and drums and a brisk melody, she's jumpstarted her inaction into action - the creation of a song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEAD FOX")
BARNETT: (Singing) Jen insists that we buy organic vegetables, and I must admit that I was a little skeptical at first. A little pesticide can't hurt. Never having too much money, I get the cheap stuff at the supermarket, but they're all pumped up with [expletive]. A friend told me that they stick nicotine in the apples. If you can't see me, I can't see you. If you can't see me, I can't see you. Heading down the Highway Hume somewhere at the end of June...
TUCKER: Barnett begins songs with what might seem unpromising lines, such as, I stare at the lawn or, in the one I just played, Jen insists that we buy organic vegetables. But very soon, further details accumulate, and a mood is established. If Barnett was writing short stories, she might be seen as a natural consequence of Mary Gaitskill or Raymond Carver or Alice Munro, but she's making music. And in every one of her songs, a theme emerges from the interaction between the words, Barnett's spoken vocalizing and the pleasurable grinding of the guitars which speed up or slow down as the scenario demands. In this sense, the most literary of her efforts here may be "Elevator Operator."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ELEVATOR OPERATOR")
BARNETT: (Singing) Oliver Paul - twenty years old, thick head of hair, worries he's going bald - wakes up at quarter-past 9, fare evades his way down the 96 tram line. Breakfast on the run again - he's well aware he's dropping Soya-Linseed-Vegemite crumbs everywhere. Feeling sick at the sight of his computer, he dodges his way through the Swanston commuters, rips off his tie, hands it to a homeless man sleeping in the corner of a metro bus stand. He screams, I'm not going to work today - going to count the minutes that the trains run late, sit on the grass building pyramids out of Coke cans. Headphone-wielding to the Nicholas Building...
TUCKER: Like the elevator operator in her song who presses the button to the top floor to go out on the roof of the building for, Barnett says, perception and clarity, Courtney Barnett is forever trying to clear her head and make herself understood better. We all benefit from the heroic effort she makes to be as forthright, honest and yet, as understated as possible. And if I haven't been clear, this is one of the best albums I've heard in the year thus far.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed Courtney Barnett's new album, "Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit." I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.