Courtney Barnett once sang that she preferred the mundane. In fact, it’s what set her apart from most contemporary songwriters, her songs often taking a low-key, if good-humored perspective on the details of everyday, perhaps unremarkable events: allergic reactions, house shopping, cooking ramen. But within those fairly low-stakes observations were the kinds of vivid narratives that revealed something about humanity that cut deeper than, say, a breezy song about house-hunting in a neighborhood in Melbourne might suggest, like the subtle reveal in “Depreston” that she and her partner were looking at a home that went vacant because somebody died in it. Courtney Barnett’s songs always feel good to listen to, but even at her most fun, there’s always a kernel of feeling bad.
Tell Me How You Really Feel arrives three years after 2015’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit—though less than a year after her collaboration with Kurt Vile, Lotta Sea Lice—and it immediately feels a bit different than where she last left things on her previous solo effort. Where that album’s “Elevator Operator” kickstarted without hesitation into a peppy power-pop narrative, here she seems to be slowly thawing from a kind of malaise. She tunes her guitar and begins the hypnotic riff of “Hopefulessness”—a telling title to be sure—which segues into her opening line, “You know what they say/ No one is born to hate/ We learn it somewhere along the way.” It’s not jarring, necessarily; Barnett’s voice is still as comforting a sound as ever, but she sounds more exhausted and a little resigned. After the last couple of years, who wouldn’t be?
It’s not that Tell Me How You Really Feel is that dramatic a shift from her last album, but it’s impossible to overlook the darker shades on the album. The album’s first single, “Nameless, Faceless” is seemingly the angriest Barnett has ever sounded, confronting misogyny the best way she knows how: with a grungy earworm. She recounts a Twitter troll’s harsh criticisms, followed by a pretty sick burn (“He said ‘I could eat a bowl of alphabet soup/and spit out better words than you’/ But you didn’t“) before quoting Margaret Atwood in the song’s fiery chorus: “I want through the park in the dark/ Men are scared that women will laugh at them…Women are scared that men will kill them.” It’s ferocious, yet still as fun as anything Barnett’s ever recorded, but then “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch” happens, and well, she gets even angrier. “I try my best to be patient,” she sings, “But I can only put up with so much shit.”
On tracks such as “City Looks Pretty” and “Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence,” Barnett delivers more of the tuneful pop gems that she’s become known for, complete with a relatable undercurrent of melancholy—one that’s become a kind of new normal for many of us. And ultimately, as dark or as angry as Barnett gets, it’s always in the service of trying to end up somewhere better, to turn those bad feelings into something better. On that, she succeeds, though there’s still a slightly bitter taste that remains. It’s something that most of us are going to have to get used to for a while, but an album like Tell Me How You Really Feel at least makes it a bit more palatable.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.