Courtney Barnett estimates she’s had twenty panic attacks since entering adulthood. It’s the sort of detail that’s acutely incongruous with her music, a wry, lazy blend of punk, folk, and pop that’s as vivacious as it is laid-back, chaotically ambling yet replete with measured insight. This, of course, all makes perfect sense in the same way that Barnett’s songs do, stitching together unrelated events and keen observations until meaning is grasped among the coincidences. The 26-year old Melbourne singer/songwriter simply writes about the world she sees. But in doing so, she unveils a frantic truth that most people who’ve made it through their twenties already know — no matter where you live, that world is a pretty scary place.
Barnett’s promising 2014 debut The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas explored topics like masturbation, not being able to breathe while gardening (perhaps another one of those panic attacks) and the irony found in slackerdom. “It must be tiring/ Trying so hard/ To look like you’re not really trying at all,” Barnett dryly noted. Those songs put her, and to some degree, Australia’s independent rock scene squarely on the map — a reward that’s been reciprocated now that Barnett’s home country inhabits much of follow-up LP Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. A can of Vegemite, Phillip Island, and the 96 tram line all make casual appearances in these songs, while Barnett’s deadpan vocal delivery accentuates that lovable way Aussies chew and savor their words like satisfying meals. But the confidence and approachability of Sometimes I Sit ensures that it exceeds both geography and expectations. Barnett has taken a self-assured leap forward that just might make her a household name in indie rock — this is the sound of an artist trying hard as hell.
Sometimes I Sit’s crisp production quality is a marked improvement over its lo-fi predecessor’s. Barnett’s disheveled vigor and studied indifference recalls a mixture of Nirvana and Pavement with the dry wit and flat affect of early Liz Phair. As a guitarist, she’s got an understated, slippery melodicism that feels like Kurt Vile crossed with Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner — a less-is-more sangfroid that knocks your teeth in. “I make mistakes until I get it right/ I used to hate myself but now I think I’m all right” she insists on “Small Poppies,” seven minutes of gorgeous, head-on-the bar blues that raises the urgency of each verse as moody guitar textures swell into a callous-shredding climax. Her self-deprecation and shrugging ennui can make her come across as a couch potato philosopher, but consider her a slouch at your own risk.
As a lyricist, Barnett has a staggering eye for detail. Her songs are constructed from random, commonplace occurrences in her everyday life, (“Maybe I’m really self-centered,” she offers half-jokingly), but among the banalities Barnett spots patterns, affinities, and unlikely wires connected across a giant switchboard. On “An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York),” the 27 year-old ponders a lover who’s an entire continent away and compares cracks on a plaster bedroom wall to the crooked lines found on her palm. She arrives at an uneasy conclusion: “I lose a breath/ My love line seems entwined with death.” Nothing actually happens in the song, there’s just a little universe unfolding inside Barnett’s head. She’s the rare artist who actually finds inspiration while staring at the ceiling.
Upbeat grunge-rock riffs (“Pedestrian at Best”) and crunchy, power-pop choruses (“Debbie Downer”) make welcome additions to Sometimes I Sit, but Barnett’s most enduring songs retain a tender, rainy-day melancholy that allow her epiphanies to bloom. Album centerpiece “Depreston” is a softly-strummed, mid-tempo master class in storytelling that transforms the tedious task of house-hunting into a mediation on mortality and loss. Barnett and her significant other are prepared to sacrifice proximity to Melbourne’s trendy latte shops for a suburban bungalow and two-car garage in nearby Preston, until she realizes the previous home owner has died. “I can’t think of floorboards anymore” Barnett says numbly. The maturation from city hipster to mortgage-paying adult is rendered meaningless by a glimpse of what awaits her.
Barnett’s lyrics feel judiciously hand-picked yet never overwrought, attaining a zen level of offhandedness. Watching the world from a rooftop is like playing SimCity. Faced with the prospect of a house party, she wants to go out and she wants to stay home. Bartnett grounds the slang and irony in profound realizations of life’s immutable truths that renders her reflections contemporary yet wise beyond her years. “We either think that we’re invincible/ Or think we are invisible/ Realistically we’re somewhere in between” she observes in the face of the Great Barrier Reef’s destruction at human hands, an act she abhors but in which she’s complicit. Barnett feels like that kid on the rooftop in her song “Elevator Operator,” puzzling over the grand schemes and petty machinations of our lives (and hers) from afar as it were some game, knowing full well it’s not.
Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit is an exercise in perspective — both the literal act of noticing and the vantage point it provides on how to cope with what is witnessed. “I know I have let you down” Barnett laments over the crestfallen folk riff of “Boxing Day Blues, “I love all of your ideas/ You love the idea of me.” Like her best lyrics, it’s simple and sweetly clever until you realize she’s watching the lifeblood drain out of a relationship. Barnett spies this unraveling, this crumbling in the firmament — doomed romances, ecological destruction, the terror of growing old — and through the act of recognizing it, remains whole. The album’s title alludes to the subtle pleasures of sitting, whether in contemplation or repose, but Barnett’s exertion brings to mind anything but a sedentary act. Over fretwork that’s violent enough to scorch skin, she utters: “I don’t know quite who I am/ But oh man, I am trying.” By the end of the sentence, she is practically shouting, imploring you to pull up a chair and listen.