Andy Hermann
14:55 14th May 2018

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Courtney Barnett tried to warn us. “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you”, she sang on ‘Pedestrian at Best’, from her universally acclaimed debut album, Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit. But put her on a pedestal we did, churning out one “voice of a generation” think piece after another. How can any sophomore album, no matter how good, live up to such hype?

It can’t, really. Anyone expecting Barnett’s latest, Tell Me How You Really Feel, to be Sometimes I Sit Part 2 will come away feeling at least somewhat let down. There are no finely detailed song-stories in the vein of ‘Depreston’, no rambling guitar jams like ‘Small Poppies’. Barnett’s songwriting has grown more economical, her lyrics less narrative and more incisive. Instead of describing a walk in the park on ‘Nameless, Faceless’, she’s content to give us a single image — “I hold my keys between my fingers” — that she backs up with a chilling Margaret Atwood quote: “Men are scared that women will laugh at them … Women are scared that men will kill them.” The song’s larger point is made without the need for a torrent of detail.

But once you get used to its leaner approach, Tell Me How You Really Feel reveals itself to be just as accomplished as Barnett’s debut. Her guitar work, always underrated, shines throughout, achieving a Stephen Malkmus-like shambling grace on the one-two punch of album openers ‘Hopefulessness’ and ‘City Looks Pretty’ and evoking one of her heroes, Kurt Cobain, on the deliciously furious ‘I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch’. ‘Need a Little Time’ and the aforementioned ‘Nameless, Faceless’ feature two of her most well-crafted melodies. And her lyrics, though often more oblique than in the past (song titles like ‘Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence’ notwithstanding), reveal themselves on closer examination to be just as clever and heartfelt. If anyone’s written a better account of emerging from a long bout of depression than ‘City Looks Pretty’, I have yet to hear it.

Much has rightly been made of ‘Nameless, Faceless’ as Barnett’s brilliant takedown of male entitlement (“must be lonely, being angry, feeling overlooked,” she deadpans, addressing the internet trolls). But more often, she turns her gimlet eye upon herself. Lyrics like “You seem to have the weight of the world upon your bony shoulders”, from ‘Need a Little Time’, sound self-addressed, as does “I bet you got a lot to prove” from ‘Charity’, a pep talk wrapped in jangly guitars and more of that crippling self-doubt. Barnett knows that, whether she likes it or not, she has been put on a pedestal — and on Tell Me How You Really Feel, she’s grappling with whether to stay there or jump. In chronicling that struggle, she’s made another remarkable record.

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