Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett - with her wry sense of humour, and witty observational voice – has an effortless ability to engage her audience. Her extensive use of pronouns, and her stream of consciousness narrative style, easily allow a listener to situate themselves in her scenario; and with few words, she paints a picture as vivid, yet as ordinary, as any terribly dull circumstance in our own lives. Poetic in nature, a large part of Barnett’s success is attributed to her slacker-deadpan delivery; a style which quickly garnered her significant media interest back in 2013.
“It’s a Monday, it’s so mundane”, she says on the excellent “Avant Gardener”, before falling victim to a panic attack, or an allergic reaction, during her one-time attempt at being proactive for a change. The humour in the irony masks the sad reality of the subject matter, converting the story from a traumatic event, to a self-deprecating tale accompanied by nervous laughter. It’s this carefree, comfortable-yet-uncomfortable in your skin, attitude that translates so well to her songs.
In the riveting “Elevator Operator”, her character, Oliver Paul, shouts, “I’m not going to work today! / Gonna count the minutes that the trains run late / Sit on the grass, building pyramids out of Coke cans.” It’s the kind of petty defiance we can all relate to; the small acts of rebellion that seem so monumental. Oliver later makes his way onto the roof of a tall building, to which a lady mistakes his intention, and begs him not to jump. “I’m not suicidal, just idling insignificantly / I come up here for perception and clarity / I like to imagine I’m playing Sim City.” You can rarely say this of an artist, but quoting her lyrics simply do not do the song justice; with a narrative as structured as this, and as razor-sharp in wit, her music genuinely deserves a listen to be fully appreciated.
So, it’s clear I hold a high opinion of her; an opinion she abruptly addresses on the next track. “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you”, she hollers on lead single, “Pedestrian at Best”. She then adds a terrific one-two punch, a lyric that will go down as one of 2015’s most memorable, “Give me all your money, and I’ll make some origami, honey / I think you’re a joke, but I don’t find you very funny.” It’s the sort of resistance that’s delivered with a tongue-in-cheek attitude; something that makes the statement all too applicable; and something we all wished we said.
Though her music always entertains through humour, it’s her storytelling that truly captivates. The record’s best track, “Depreston”, follows her house hunting in a depressing suburb near Melbourne. “We don’t have to be around all these coffee shops / Now we’ve got that percolator / Never made a latte greater / I’m saving 23 dollars a week.” These lyrics may seem insignificant, but they add a bittersweet reality to the song; a charming reminder that life’s joy can be found in the smallest of things.
Though allured by the low price tag, Barnett comes to a realization, “Then I see the handrail in the shower / The collection of those canisters for coffee, tea, and flour / And a photo of a young man in a van in Vietnam.” It’s affecting, and her first truly mature work. “If you’ve got a spare half a million / You could knock it down and start rebuilding”, she closes with. Life is comprised of memories; the ones that were, the ones that are, and the ones that will be. The closing lyric is her understanding that while you cannot rewrite the past, you can effectively write your own future. But, Barnett doesn’t think that far ahead. She’s just writing the present as it happens; and she’s allowing us to come along for the ride.