Courtney Barnett is back! The queen of observational slacker rock has taken a much darker turn on her second record, Tell Me How You Really Feel. The Aussie artist, who has released an album with Kurt Vile as well as touring with her girlfriend Jen Cloher in the last year, has released a record that sees her impassioned and as exposed as she’s ever been.
Everything from the directness of the title, to the ominous cover image – an extreme close-up of Barnett under a gloomy blood-red tint – sets a completely different tone from her witty, self-observant debut Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit. There’s a refreshing candour with this record, including a rawness in her vocals and a bravery and courage to the lyrics, no doubt Barnett’s most powerful weapon.
From opening number ‘Hopefulessness’ the tone is clearly set. “Y’know what they say/No one’s born to hate/We learn it somewhere along the way,” she breathes in its punky, Nirvana inspired opening. There’s a melancholic anger to Tell Me How You Really Feel and, with its venomous post-punk snarl, and passionate bursts of guitar crescendo, it’s an instantly different proposition from Barnett’s earlier work – but with a distinct Barnett-esque touch. Of course, Barnett has always spoken about important issues; such as mental health and the current political climate. However, while her previous work felt like a laid-back prod in the right direction, Tell Me How You Really Feel seems more personal, as if Barnett is using the record as a makeshift shrink exposing her vulnerabilities, angst and apprehension in her own world.
In fact, Barnett’s mental health, and dramatic change in her lifestyle since her rapid escalation with Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit, are a running theme throughout the record. Both the contemplative ‘Need A Little Time’ and breezy ‘City Looks Pretty’ dissect the issues surrounding fame and celebrity, namely isolation. “Friends treat you like a stranger and strangers treat you like their best friend.” from ‘City Looks Pretty’ encapsulates the record as a whole: heartbreakingly solemn lyrics written in the most eloquent, cohesive way. There’s no doubt about it, Courtney Barnett is a wordsmith and arguably the greatest lyricist of the Twenty-First Century.
Barnett has proven in this record that no matter what musical style she adopts, with her talent for a lovely turn of phrase, her work will always feel incredibly heartfelt and beautifully honest. For example, the spikey, Breeders-esque ‘Crippling Self Doubt And A General Lack Of Self Confidence’, which actually features one of Barnett’s heroes Kim Deal on backing vocals, sees Barnett stating “I never feel as stupid as when I’m around you” while lead single ‘Nameless, Faceless’ sees her scream “He said I could eat a bowl of alphabet soup and spit out better words than you. Are you kidding yourself?” about internet trolls. Tell Me How You Really Feel is Courtney Barnett at her most sensitive, constantly knocking back her own talents, but, subsequently, creating these beautifully detailed stories that almost represent a caricature of life.
This is essentially Courtney Barnett versus her enemies, including her own mental health, but with a beautiful look at how art can help you combat your demons. “Take your broken heart/Turn it into art,” she counsels at the records inception on ‘Hopefulessness’: “Your vulnerability is stronger than it seems.” Barnett’s vulnerability, and the strength to turn them on their head, has just created one of the finest records of the year.