How can something so small and specific sound so huge? A week after Kendrick Lamar made a grand, sprawling, uncompromising album about what it means to be black in America, here comes Courtney Barnett with an album of songs about looking at roadkill or trying to decide whether you want to go out tonight. It’s all nuance and detail, and the grand pronouncements come off like offhand shrugs. Courtney Barnett isn’t trying to tell us how the world works; she’s just trying to figure her own shit out. And yet Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit feels like every bit the writerly triumph that To Pimp A Butterfly is. It’s a specificity thing. Barnett doesn’t speak in riddles. She finds room in her lyrics for all these minute, concrete, important little touches. And even if they mean nothing to you — even if the reality of being a musician in Australia in your mid-twenties is light years removed from your life — there are feelings in there that translate, and project, and rattle around in your heart anyway. A lot of the sneaky-best songwriters work that way. Jarvis Cocker built a generation-defining pop epic out of an awkward trip to the supermarket. The Dismemberment Plan’s Travis Morrison wrote another one about being drunk and alone and regretful and too far from your hometown on New Year’s Eve. Sometimes I Think is an album full of songs like that — finely observed short stories that resonate because they’re so short and so finely observed.
Consider, if you will, “Elevator Operator,” the opening track from Sometimes I Think. The song starts out looking like it’ll be a clumsy narrative about a young man who decides to shuck off the shackles of everyday life, freaking out and going to live in the woods or whatever. But beyond handing his tie to a homeless guy, and wailing that he’s going to waste his day instead of going to work, our hero Oliver Paul never does anything drastic. An overly botoxed lady shares an elevator ride with him to the roof of a skyscraper. She sees the unrest in him, and she’s terrified that he’s about to commit suicide. She tries to talk him down. She wants him to live, and the best reason she can think to give is “I’d give anything to have skin like you.” But Oliver Paul was never planning on jumping. He just likes to go up to the roof and pretend he’s playing Sim City: “All the people look like ants from here, and the wind’s the only traffic you can hear!” Oliver Paul and the botox lady don’t represent something grander or more sweeping than two people in an elevator — or, at least, I don’t think they do — and the story isn’t about anything more than the conversation itself. But it sticks with you, and Barnett makes a catchy-as-hell hook out of the lady begging Oliver not to jump. It doesn’t feel ambitious, but could you pull that off? Could anyone other than Barnett?
Barnett can turn a hell of a phrase. On lying awake, bored and lonely and jetlagged, in a hotel room: “I pretend the plaster is the skin on my palms, and the cracks are representative of what is going on.” On noticing all the dead animals all around her on an Australian roadway: “Taxidermied kangaroos are littered on the shoulders, a possum Jackson Pollock is painted on the tar.” A better fuck-you bar than any rapper has written this year: “At the end of the day, it’s a pain that I keep seeing your name / But I’m sure it’s a bore being you.” “Kim’s Caravan” is a song that captures a feeling I’ve never heard described, through music or anywhere else, before: The feeling that the earth is falling to pieces around you, that you are partly at fault, and that you have no idea how to fix anything, so you just get drunk: “I drank till I was sinking, sank till I was thinking that I’m thankful for this view.” That thought, and the implied thought that the view won’t last forever, lead to a rare moment where the character studies end — where Barnett is singing to you, the listener — “Don’t ask me what I really mean / I am just a reflection of what you really wanna see, so take what you want from me.” She ends the song by singing, “All I wanna say is…,” and then trailing off midsentence. What a perfect ending.
Barnett’s voice, sharp and blasé and funny and self-deprecating and a tiny bit surly, was right there an The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas, the album-not-album that Barnett released a year and a half ago. That was one of the finest debuts in recent memory, but Barnett insisted that it wasn’t really an album, that it was just “good practice.” If that was practice, then Sometimes I Sit is the big game, the thing all the practice has been leading up to. It’s her first proper album, and as such, it’s an absolute fucking stunner. It does everything that The Double EP did, but it’s sharper and tougher and more revealing. Every song has at least one line that you want to write down just to see it written. It’s a big leap from an artist who was already in a pretty great place.
Musically, too, it’s a vast step forward. On The Double EP, Barnett and her band were shaggy and loopy and classic-rock in an amiably ambling sort of sense. Writing about them at the time, I compared them to the Band and Pavement. Those points of comparison still stand, especially on a loose countrified digression like “Depreston.” And Barnett still sings in a conversational, unimpressed, rambling monotone, as if she’d only gotten halfway to putting all these stray observations to song but she wanted to get them on wax before she forgot them. But since that last record, she’s made that voice more expressive. It’s not showy, but there’s a hint of longing that creeps in when she lets her syllables stretch out, or excitable vigor when she really digs her teeth into a chorus. The way she sings the word “funny” on first single “Pedestrian At Best,” stretching it out into a giddy parody of melisma, is a beautiful thing. She and her band have figured out punk rock, too. There’s a force and speed and sense of fun to many of these songs that wasn’t there before. “Pedestrian At Best” and “Elevator Operator” and “Aqua Profunda!” are fast, driven, ragged, hooky pop songs. Barnett’s voice shouldn’t work on songs like that, but they absolutely do, and the sense of urgency is a wonderful addition. She’s still learning, still picking up new tricks, and she sounds like she’s having more fun than ever. She’s figured out her whole aesthetic to the point where she feels like a genre unto herself. I can’t imagine where she’ll go from here, how she’ll further refine that voice. But it kind of doesn’t matter, since she’s already given us an album for the ages.
Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit is out now on Mom + Pop.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Earl Sweatshirt’s dark, insular, beautifully written I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside.
• Action Bronson’s major-label sketch-rap opus Mr. Wonderful.
• Lightning Bolt’s badass basement noisecore pummel Fantasy Empire.
• JEFF The Brotherhood’s melodic, fuzzed-out Camaro-rocker Wasted On The Dream.
• Liturgy’s not-really-metal experimental zone-out The Ark Work.
• Laura Marling’s expansive, electric folk-rocker Short Movie.
• Chastity Belt’s melodic fuzz-rock reverie Time To Go Home.
• The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s hometown-appreciation party Freedom Tower – No Wave Dance Party 2015.
• The Cribs’ catchy, guitar-driven For All My Sisters.
• The Go! Team’s fuzzy cut-and-paste comeback The Scene Between.
• Vetiver’s dependably dusty folker Complete Strangers.
• Chilly Gonzalez’s conceptual pop album Chambers.
• Big Data’s collaboration marathon 2.0.
• Broken Water’s tough shoegaze album Wrought.
• Happyness’ deadpan indie rocker Weird Little Birthday.
• Kendrick Lamar collaborator’s Sunnymoon’s minimal, melodic The Courage Of Present Times.
• Jam City’s synthetic dreampopper Dream A Garden.
• Dane Terry’s warbling, psychedelic Color Movies.
• QOTSA side-project Mini Mansions’ guest-heavy The Great Pretenders.
• Grandbrothers’ jazzy, synthy Dilation.
• Van Morrison’s Starbucksy team-up collection Duets: Re-Working The Catalog.
• Der Weg Einer Freiheit’s melodic black metal thunderer Stellar.
• Buena Vista Social Club’s unreleased-material collection Lost And Found.
• The James Murphy-driven While We’re Young soundtrack.
• The Rihanna-driven Home soundtrack.
• Clark’s Flame Rave EP.