Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett are both excellent artists in their own right. Vile’s peculiar brand of slacker rock inhabits the same kind of sphere as Mac Demarco, but manages to feel more sincere, the goofiness replaced by a spaced-out rambling. Barnett for her part channels that slacker sound too, but often breaks out into high-tempo grunge-inspired rock; her lyrics (some of the best around right now, for my money) are sharper and more observational than the usually abstract Vile. In essence, although these two artists have many similarities in tone and even looks, it is important to recognise that they are by no means identical – the life of this album depends on it.
Many of the songs here are structured in a very similar way: Vile will sing a line in the verse, or a whole verse, and then Barnett will do the same. They will then sing the chorus together, sometimes in harmony, sometimes simply layered over each other. If that sounds like it could get repetitive, it’s because it can. However, this isn’t an album that pretends to break much new ground. Much of the run-time is taken up by repetition, both in these sorts of structures and elongated instrumental sections where the two show off their excellent and creative guitar playing chops. Yes it can feel drawn out or uninspired at times, but it does what it sets out to do.
The album is primarily a monument to friendship – a particularly modern one in this case, with many of the songs written over the internet due to the artists’ different nationalities (Vile an American, Barnett from Melbourne). It is a comforting album above all else, and if it returns too often to the same themes and patterns, that is because friendships do too, and we take solace in that. The lead single Over Everything says it best: “You could almost forget about the other things/ Like the big old ominous cloud in my periphery”. There are touches of darkness creeping at the edges of this album, such as in Fear Is Like a Forest, but, while they aren’t ignored, they’re mostly glossed over. It would lack nuance to say that the album is a purely warming experience about friendship and nothing else, but to not recognise this as the central guiding tenet would be an unnecessary and pretentious complication. At the end of Blue Cheese, for instance, you can hear Vile’s phone ding, followed by his laughter. That is not the sound of a deadly serious record.
It’s what makes some of the recycled content more palatable. Of the nine songs here, only five are new. Fear Is Like a Forest (originally by Barnett’s partner Jen Cloher) and Untogether are covers, while Outta the Woodwork and Peepin’ Tom are lifted from Barnett’s and Vile’s back catalogues respectively. On a solo project, fans might be inclined to complain about a lack of originality, but here these reinterpretations only further the convivial mood.
This album is perfect to put on while outside in the sun. It may not be particularly memorable, but it is warming and touching, and sometimes that’s more than enough.