Courtney Barnett - Tell Me How You Really Feel
by Evan Phillips
‘I’m not your mother, I’m not your bitch’ growls Barnett on the song of the same name that opens side two of Tell Me How You Really Feel. That album title played an unusually significant role in the lead-up to the record’s release, with the singer-songwriter asking fans via billboards and email to, well, tell her how they really felt about her. We’re all told how wonderful it is for artists to be able to connect with their fans online in this day and age but it’s not every day an artist openly invites criticism and honesty so openly and, while the whole album takes aim at internet trolls, toxic masculinity and personal anxieties, I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch is a razor sharp 110 second summary of how Courtney Barnett really feels.
Tell Me How You Really Feel is a case of the second album doing as it should: being for the most part the antithesis of the first album. Indeed, while 2015’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit was several years in the making and was preceded by the Double EP A Sea of Split Peas that first caught the ears of so many, Barnett’s new album makes its way to listeners barely twelve months after her collaborative album with Kurt Vile- Whole Lotta Sea Lice- and its ten tracks make for a short but sharp listen.
Hopefullessness starts the album at an almost funereal pace to begin with, Barnett’s de-tuned and woozy guitar riffs the only accompaniment to her soft reassurances that ‘you know it’s okay to have a bad day’, before the drums come out of the gloom and the track ends with squalls of noise as Barnett’s guitar seems to melt in the mix. By contrast, single City Looks Pretty sounds almost misplaced following such a sour opener, with its jaunty lead melody and driving rhythm (courtesy of two of Barnett’s long-time musical collaborators, Dave Mudie on drums and Bones Sloane on bass). Even the lyrics take a more optimistic turn, Barnett singing, ‘sometimes I get sad/it’s not all that bad’ as she muses on returning home after months of touring is akin to walking the streets after a long time indoors. If anything, the track shows Barnett’s growth as a songwriter best as it slows down at the halfway point and the instrumentation sways to and fro and Barnett plays the track out with a yearning guitar solo; in that moment, no other ending would have sufficed.
Following tracks Charity and Need A Little Time bring even more light and shade to the table. With a ringing guitar hook and a damn catchy chorus that has Barnett picking on herself- ‘so subservient I make myself sick’- the former is a peppy sounding future single for sure, whereas the latter is introspective, personal and, from a songwriting perspective, one of the best songs Barnett has written to date. It’s not just the lyrics that feel painfully close to home for the singer, although the second verse beginning with ‘show us your innermost lecherous/ I’ll rip it out carefully/ I promise you won’t feel a thing’ feels like an especially sharp take on the nature of making music and having it remorselessly judged and picked apart by others, but the instrumentation feels more mature as well. The guitar chords are, how shall I put this… Oasis-ish? You know the knack Noel Gallagher has for penning a chord sequence that really fits together well? It’s like that just minus the Adidas jacket and the out of tune bellowing of a crowd of drunken fans in the background.
After taking aim at herself in the previous tracks, Barnett makes perhaps the most dryly scathing and yet harmoniously accepting shot at trolls on Nameless, Faceless. From picking apart anonymous online critics in the verses, to quoting Margaret Atwood in the chorus as she holds her keys ‘between my fingers’, it’s a shocking change in tone that only adds to the unfiltered feel of the whole album; even Court’s guitar becomes more ragged. Help Your Self slows things down slightly with a Pavement-like percussive strut while Barnett takes some vocal cues from Kurt Vile before tearing through a squealing guitar solo. Walkin’ on Eggshells is unfortunately where the record’s subdued tone starts to wear me down slightly. The laid back instrumentation sounds perfectly serviceable, I like the bright piano chords especially, but something about the deadpan delivery of Barnett’s vocals that I usually enjoy just does nothing for me here; maybe I’m alone in that, though.
Fortunately, Sunday Roast is a strong closer in terms of its lyrical content which actually helps to lift the hazy instrumentation. You can hear rumbling drums and bass, even what sounds like strings well back in the mix, but its Barnett’s vocals that rightfully take centre stage. There’s something very comforting about Barnett softly singing ‘I know you’re trying your best/I think you’re doing just fine’ before transitioning into a coda of ‘keep on keeping on, you know you’re not alone’ in the outro; the sonic equivalent of a warm hug and a cheery end to an album that seems born from negativity but determined to rise above it.
Let’s be clear that I think Courtney is really coming into her own as a songwriter; not to mention being an achingly funny lyricist and a killer guitar player to boot. And it goes almost without saying that recruiting Burke Reid for production once again was a good call, the sounds across the board are punchy and present as they should be. My reservations with Tell Me How You Really Feel are minor, I doubt they’d be an issue for the majority of other listeners. It’s the tone of the album that gets me. Perhaps not expecting to hear something quite so dour and raw from Courtney subverted my expectations somewhat, and maybe that’s a good thing, it’s hard for me to say. Regardless, Barnett’s sophomore release is pretty great, and in baring her soul once again for the listening pleasures of her audience, she’s proven that, right now, the best thing you can be is honest.