“No-one’s born to hate – we learn it somewhere along the way.” This is the sombre note on which Australian slacker-queen Courtney Barnett begins her second album, amid heavy-hearted, Nirvana-indebted guitar. It’s a typically astute observation from a singer-songwriter who is carving a career out of them: Barnett’s speciality is picking meat off the bones to expose the emotional skeletons of life’s seemingly mundane happenings. Both her 2013 double-EP ‘A Sea Of Split Peas’ and 2015 debut album ‘Sometimes I Sit And Think And Sometimes I Just Sit’ established her as funny and candid – and a cracking storyteller.
In 2016, she told NME that her follow-up would be “darker and more melancholy” and immediately, opener ‘Hopelessness’ strikes a change in vibe. Whereas those previous releases felt like a chat over a cuppa between mates, ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’ feels more personal, like opening a window into Barnett’s mind, exposing her vulnerabilities and fears in the process.
Barnett has been open about her struggles with mental health – recently explaining to NME: “I’ve always had a melancholic feeling since I was a kid; I guess it just crept in” – and several songs deal with the repercussions of having anxiety as a constant presence in her life. The reflective ‘Need A Little Time’ and breezy ‘City Looks Pretty’ tackle the challenges that come with fame, including isolation: “Friends treat you like a stranger and strangers treat you like their best friend.” Insecurity rears its head over slouchy guitars on ‘Crippling Self Doubt And A General Lack Of Self Confidence’, which features Kim Deal on backing vocals, Barnett sighing: “I never feel as stupid as when I’m around you”.
Later, ‘Nameless, Faceless’ rages at modern misogyny, quoting Margaret Atwood: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid that men will kill them.” But it also takes on Internet trolls, who add to the sniping in Barnett’s head: “He said I could eat a bowl of alphabet soup and spit out better words than you. Are you kidding yourself?”
‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’ is Courtney Barnett at her angriest and most vulnerable, but being a drinker of details means she can also blow the beauty of life’s little things up to full-size. Closer ‘Sunday Roast’ is wonderfully smeared slacker ballad and an ode to cherishing friendship that sees Barnett carve out her heart and leave it open on the kitchen table. It’s that candid charm that may just make her the voice of her generation.
Words: Dannii Leivers