Australian singer Courtney Barnett’s new release Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit spent a bit of time on the iTunes First Play offerings a few weeks ago. I listened to it while cleaning out a fridge, which let me get through the whole album at least four times and left me with a sparkling appliance. Those swivel chair jockeys at iTunes know a thing or two about my musical tastes when they put this one up.
The album is catchy and varied, with styles that include grunge, folk, atmospheric landscape. The pink punk brush strokes and perky pop are combinations that have launched No Doubt as well as Katy Perry to stratospheric recognition, though Barnett has moody navel-gazers and twangy country breezes in there too. It’s art-school rock meets Nirvana. That said, I also thought of the phrase, “If you stand for everything, do you really stand for anything?” Is this an album an attempt to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks? There’s a trend to wear many genres in music — and though it surely is intended to show flexibility, openness and familiarity with different styles — I wonder if it is also that artists are uncomfortable with diving deeply into a single style and pushing it creatively.
First single off the album, Pedestrian at Best is a zinger of a song, one in which I recognize the legacy of guitar swinging whiskey drinking ladies. Fuzzy, distortedly almost atonal, with a riff repeated far too often, Barnnett’s smart lyrics become the focus. The song focuses on any etsy artisan’s worst fear: being pedestrian, at best. “Give me all your money, and I’ll make some origami, honey.” Her knack for a fine pun though is something I enjoy: “I’m having an existential time crisis… daylight savings won’t fix this mess.”
The other “hot” single is Deprestron (a reference to how depressing the town of Preston is). This one channels Barnett’s country-folky side, a twanging guitar and a mournful set of lyrics that describe an ordinary bungalow with canisters for coffee, tea, and flour and located far away from “all those coffee shops.” “If you’ve got a spare half a million, you could knock it down, and start rebuilding,” she says, offering a chance to put the house out of its misery.
In the same vein, An Illustration of Loneliness looks at a cheerless romance and its endless hours spent contemplating the beloved. The music evokes the sentiment – the sleeplessness, the thirst for knowledge of the future, the symbolism one finds in everything, the mundane activities one does in the interim of waiting.
Things get wide and dreamy with Small Poppies. Seven minutes of airy guitar that wanders and meanders around, tipped with almost sluggish drums. South pacific twangs blow through. The song so precisely captures a sentiment: frustration with boredom. Why don’t more people sing about this all-too-familiar can’t get it together kind of anger? Things start as a begrudging sneer at a sense of time wasted. Then, the song erupts into a glorious instrumental mash that captures a kind of fury and malcontent at being trapped by one’s own impotence.
Speaking truth to many an evening’s dilemma, “Nobody Really Cares if you don’t go to the party,” returns to the same charismatic garage sound of Pedestrian at Best. Barnett sings of life’s critical dilemma. “I wanna go out, but I wanna stay home.” A mantra, if I ever heard one. This one also has a lovely instrumental outro.
Barnett’s album’s greatest strength is its willingness to try out different and lesser-tapped genres. Aqua Profunda! has a swinging ‘60s vibe as the song’s narrator checks out whoever is doing the breastroke in the next lane. Opener Elevator Operator is a cheery, twitchy song that musically isn’t very complex, doesn’t seem to worry about tightness, and is boosted by its lyrics about a neurotic guy who rips off his tie, leaves his job, and takes to the roof of a building. “I’m not suicidal, just idling insignificantly. I come up here for perception and clarity. I like to imagine I’m playing Sim city.”
Every track on this album has something to like about it.The words conjure images, a story, a scene. While a few songs do get a bit tedious the fourth time around, others are more-ish and their melodies and lyrics stick like earworms for days.
Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit is out now.