Would it be all too obvious to say that the title of Courtney Barnett’s second full-length album sounds like something someone must have been saying to her for most of her life? Though only two LPs into her recorded solo career, Barnett’s honest, unflinching manner already feels classic and her latest, Tell Me How You Really Feel, only enhances that quality. While not completely devoid of a certain cheekiness that was abundant on 2015’s Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, this record brings shades of darkness, feelings of anger, sadness and frustration. With a very raw, live feel and an unwavering determination to uncover her innermost anguish, she has provided a thoughtful musical message.
Straight off the top is “Hopefulessness”, a mashed up word referring to, according to Barnett, the attempt to force yourself into feeling hopeful when you really don’t. It’s a strong image and one that many an anxious, self-loathing person will be familiar with. The musical make up of this tune will be the best example used by those who claim that this album lacks Barnett’s typically bounding, energised musical style. It sets out at a slow pace with a slightly jerkily-picked guitar part over which Barnett first releases her signature drawl. The song never increases in tempo but steadily becomes more intense as it continues on towards a fuzzy, feedback charged end. Accompanied by a disjointed collection of lyrical images including broken hearts and broken homes, it provides a pretty negative start to the record in terms of a vibe but one which undeniably grabs the listener’s attention. Heavier and moodier than anything we’ve heard from her before, Barnett shows immediately that this record has taken her in a different direction.
“City Looks Pretty” was the third of four singles to be dropped in the lead up to the album release and here we see a lift in spirits, almost as if she knows the emotional weight of the first track needs a bit of counterbalance. Sounding like something which could have come off her 2015 debut due to its bouncy, upbeat quality, it acts as that counterweight in more ways than one. Musically, it shifts towards a more positive light and lyrically it acts as a resolution to “Hopefulessness”. “Sometimes I get mad, it’s not half as bad, pull yourself together and just calm down,” she sings. The first words speak of re-entering the outside world after a prolonged period of indoor hibernation and as the song unfolds you can almost feel the chill of Melbourne in autumn and visualise the fresh air rejuvenating a weary soul. A beautiful, wafting slower section takes over and provides one of the highlights of the album – with an incredibly tender guitar solo crooning its way out to the end.
“Charity” is a reasonably straightforward indie-rocker and a sure-fire festival sing-along. A good example of Barnett’s stock sarcasm and dry humour, she belts out the refrain “You must be having so much fun, everything’s amazing”. She doesn’t degrade into outright slander however, coming full circle with “You don’t have to pretend you’re not scared… I bet you got a lot to prove, I know you’re still the same”. Not as piercing as she once was but hey, that’s growing up. “Need A Little Time”, the second single released in March, is the album at its most vulnerable. Stepping away briefly from the pressures of upholding a personality ideal and taking some time to really feel your own feelings is an important process for everyone and certainly a necessary one for a global music star. Musically, the song is quite simple and delivers a catchy chorus that you can’t help but chime in on.
The first single thrust upon the world in February this year was “Nameless, Faceless”. Perhaps the most publicised track from the record to date, it makes a bold statement of strength in the face of tyrannical modern misogyny and adds another loud voice in the rising wave against it. It enters with a sense of sarcastic sympathy that is harbouring an undercurrent of hostility, “I’m real sorry, ‘bout whatever happened to you,” she quips. But the faux-niceties don’t last long, as the chorus comes crashing in aggressively, ending with an ominous admission in “I hold my keys, between my fingers”. Barnett is, of course, relaying the idea that many women don’t feel safe these days walking around alone at night. The title of the tune alludes to the idea that the men who belong to the group that think they have the right to harass and abuse women are slowly merging into one grotesque blob of insignificant names, faces and gestures. A terrifying image and praise to Barnett who, among many others, is speaking out for change.
The aggression continues into “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch”, a squalling, hostile piece of punk rock. A ‘fuck you’ straight to the face of would-be tormentors which makes no mistake in getting its point across, with lyrics such as “I try my best to be patient, but I can only put up with so much shit,” and the equally as transparent title. At less than two minutes in length and coming to a cataclysmic end after a frenzied guitar solo, it’s anger at its rawest and fiercely thrown at the listener, a frantic but fitting inclusion.
A vivacious change comes next with “Crippling Self-Doubt And A General Lack Of Confidence”. Announcing itself as an encouraging, upbeat anthem and featuring Kim and Kelley Deal on backing vocals, it deals with those nasty feelings that come along with self-doubt. Another punchy tune, it wastes no time mincing words – “I don’t know anything, I don’t owe anything,” proclaims the chorus. It’s a message that is important for artists and fans alike to receive. It seems to be an inherent hindrance for many artists that they go through stages of indecision and lack of belief in their creations. That chorus drives home the idea that every artist deserves to be surrounded by a support structure that enables them and encourages them. We don’t owe anyone the fruits of our creative efforts but more importantly, we have to overcome the idea that what we create is not good enough even for ourselves. That is, when we forget what we ‘know’, our creative process will be allowed to flow unchallenged.
“Help Your Self” is a head-bobbing, cowbell-infused tune most notable for its driving rhythm and the menacing, demented guitar solo towards the end. Barnett’s guitar work, though always proficient, has definitely seen some growth and this number is a good example, particularly of her increasingly refined lead style. This album provides more than one solo that doesn’t just merely fill a gap but actually adds great texture and balance. “Walkin’ On Eggshells” keeps up the good vibes with its mid-tempo indie rock, providing nice lead melodies again. But despite feeling a little generic musically, it again provides a template for honest lyrics – the clear focus of the album in general.
To top things off is the mellow and heart-warming “Sunday Roast”. It seems like a hopeful way to resolve the record and does a good job of leaving the listener with the feeling that all the badness in the world can be overcome through the power of love and friendship, something not touched on until this point. It is a humble piece and one that brings a sense of nostalgia and comfort, just like friends around the dinner table in a warm room on a winter night. And with that image, Barnett leaves us until next time.
Starting off gloomy, moving through moments of rage and distress and finally coming to a contented end, Tell Me How You Really Feel is some journey and definitely worth a listen or two. One gets the feeling that, though the issues from which this album stem may not yet be remedied, the process of writing, recording and touring this album will be a transformational one for Courtney Barnett and every progressively-minded person would do well to take in the messages she sends with this fantastic effort.