Courtney Barnett Is Neurotic and Nuanced on ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’

Aussie singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett is best known for her critically acclaimed 2015 single “Pedestrian at Best,” which contains the line, “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you.” She’s now released her highly anticipated second full length, “Tell Me How You Really Feel,” and it’s only natural to wonder whether she meant her words all along.

The opening track is titled “Hopefulessness,” perhaps meant to address this matter immediately. The term seems coined to draw a distinction between lacking hope itself, and merely not being hopeful. After all, one can have plenty of hope, but feel disinclined to indulge in it. This is the type of grey area that the record inhabits overall. Barnett is widely known for her deadpan delivery, and it’s this quality that imbues her songs with much of their elusive wit, mystery, edge, and depth. The lines between irony and sincerity, purposefulness and nihilism, all blur indiscreetly, and blend into multi-tone colors. The music draws skillfully from various eras of rock, creating a sonic landscape well-fit for the multifarious emotions of the subject matter.

“Hopefulessness” is a grungy, droney, dragging dirge, over which Barnett sings, “Take your broken heart / Turn it into art / Can’t take it with you.” The last line justifies one’s not being completely “hopeful,” although it doesn’t dismiss “hope.” The sentiment is of living forever through art. As if this isn’t already meta enough, Barnett gets more tongue-in cheek toward the end, alerting us, “I’m getting louder now.” The song ends up enveloped by sculpted feedback, and leaves behind the faint sound of a tea kettle. The statement of intent has been made, and it’s on with the day’s business.

“City Looks Pretty” is timeless rock ‘n’ roll, with chugging vaguely blues-derived, overdriven guitar riffs, and squelching, wheezing leads. Barnett sings, “I’ll be what you want oh when you want it / But I’ll never be what you need / And the city looks pretty from where I’m standing.” In other words, it’s all relative, so think whatever you’d like about the song, the record, and Barnett in general. Such reasoning is a way of coming to grips with one’s own self-doubt and insecurities. In the following song, “Charity,” Barnett recalls how, “Hesitation lingers till I’m unreasonable.” With perfection being the enemy of the good, it’s useful to just focus on how the “city looks pretty” from your perspective. In fact, Barnett’s whole musical style, with its confident modesty, seems born of this creed. “Charity” pokes a bit of fun at those completely unencumbered by such concerns. Barnett sings, “You must be having so much fun / Everything’s amazing,” elongating her vowels for playful sarcasm. The next song, “Need, a Little Time,” features a prime example of Barnett’s signature lyrical brilliance in the lines, “Open up your insides, show us / Your innermost lecherous / I’ll rip it out carefully / I promise you won’t feel a thing.” It’s at once morbid, comforting, and calming, and all delivered in a stoic voice. The neurotic subject matter, (“You need a little time out / From you, you, you, you”) belies the rather breezy music and chirpy, sustained crooning of the word “you.”

“Nameless Faceless” is a melodically infectious tune with gritty, heavy rock choruses that are equal parts ‘60s and ‘90s, replete with folky “Ahh-ahh” backing vocals. For this song, Barnett takes on internet trolls, indicting them, “You sit alone at home in the darkness / With all the pent-up rage that you harness,” and patronizing them, “I’m real sorry / ‘Bout whatever happened to you.” She even directly calls out a guy who — true story — once commented that he “could eat a bowl of alphabet soup / And spit out better words,” now adding, with much gusto, “But you didn’t.” It should be noted that Barnett has attributed  the album’s title, “Tell Me How You Really Feel,” to bottled-up anger, that she is, in this track, ostensibly letting out. She lets it all out about various things, at one point paraphrasing a profound observation originally made by Margaret Atwood: “Men are scared that women will laugh at them / Women are scared that men will kill them.” The resulting outrage bleeds into the next track, “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch,” in which slurred and stuttered words escalate into an impassioned riff over a Sabbath-esque riff, followed by Courtney Love-type howling of the title line. Let this be a call to all trolls to run rampant, and inspire more great work from Barnett.

Next is the amazingly titled “Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Self-Confidence.” It seems she must have gained some self-confidence by now, judging solely from the bold move of going with such an audacious song title. The end features the refrain, “I don’t know, I don’t know anything,” with lovely harmonies from guest singers Kim and Kelly Deal of the Breeders. It’s sung with a casual indifference that contradicts the verbalized self-deprecation. It’s a strain of ‘90s disaffection, reminiscent of Beck’s “I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me,” and it achieves much of its potency from the contradictions between sentiment and expression — a recurring theme of the record.

“Help Your Self” has some ‘70s rock elements, with jammed-out dual guitars, plenty flashy fills, bluesy licks, and messy, screeching sounds. The lyrics, “You gotta learn your place / Don’t let it go to waste,” are delivered in a power-pop chorus, making them sound laughably sarcastic, although the true irony might actually be that they’re not. The last two songs phases out the record with the most mellow music thus far. Closing track “Sunday Roast” is a laidback, subdued number, with more classic rock stylings, over which Barnett’s hushed, stoic voice delivers the lines, “It’s all the same to me / Just bring yourself / You know your presence is present enough.” If the lyrics were emotionally bleated with histrionic pop showmanship, this would be another song all together — a simple, one-dimensional, song about positivity and acceptance. And that’s still what it is — but the callous blankness of Barnetts voice seems to somewhat sterilize the message, leaving the ultimate impression of shrugging it off, and going along with all the absurdity of life. On this note, make of the album what you will. But know that it’s an emotionlessly emotional, masterfully crafted set of songs, from a one-of-a-kind artist, well-versed in decades of rock history, and showing it in a strikingly unique and engaging way.   

Tell Me How You Really Feel” is available May 18 on Apple Music.