Courtney Barnett doesn’t hold anything back on Tell Me How You Really Feel. Picking up where 2015’s debut Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit left off, it’s another notch on Barnett’s already impressive belt, all blunt lyrics and pared-back melodies, revealing along the way the unique voice behind her increasingly recognised name.
Lyrics are the centrepiece, and crowning glory, of Barnett’s music, and Tell Me… works well as a collection of poetry, or a series of short stories. On the opening track Hopefulessness, Barnett sings, “Turn your broken heart into art”. It seems as if this sentiment carries throughout the rest of the record’s lyrics, which are for the most part dark or at least cynical in nature. And it is ‘art’ which Barnett creates with her quick-witted wordplay, addressing everything from male violence to roast dinners.
But Barnett’s genius does not stop at her lyricism. A bit alternative rock, a bit psychedelic rock, Tell Me… is filled with gritty yet simple melodies and vintage rock instrumentation, heavily textured and growling with bridled energy. The song structures are minimal, with hardly a bridge to be heard. Catchy electric guitar hooks and driving bass lines dominate the tracks. Distortion is used cleverly – on some tracks Barnett’s vocals are blurred in amongst the full band, giving the record a distinctly live feel. Yet, on other tracks the balance prefers to highlight Barnett’s softly spoken lyrics.
Known for her almost monotone delivery, it is refreshing to hear Barnett’s voice in a new light as she stretches her range higher than usual in the delicately sung chorus of Need A Little Time. The mix of guitars, some of which are played by Barnett herself, and drums, gives the record a retro and moody vibe which aligns well with those lyrics.
Charity is a particular stand-out, highlighting Barnett’s ability to appear effortless in the midst of ambitious musicality. Complex lyrics collide beautifully with a small melodic range, allowing her unique voice to glide lazily through the song. Halfway through there is a distinct change of tempo, slowing to a sombre lilt. Barnett’s sarcastic wit is displayed as she croons, “You’re so subservient, I’ll make myself sick… you must be having so much fun, everything’s amazing”.
Perhaps the most powerful track on the album is Nameless, Faceless, which addresses male violence and sexism. Barnett paraphrases Margaret Atwood as she sings, “I wanna walk through the park in the dark, women are scared that men will kill them… I hold my keys between my fingers.” Barnett’s quick wit is put to use here as she exposes significant cultural issues. The relatively upbeat tempo is juxtaposed nicely alongside the chilling lyrics.
Despite Barnett’s aptly grim subjects, this record does not end on a note of doom and gloom. Final track Sunday Roast exposes a different side of her creative force. As a lighter textured tune begins, Barnett sings, “Keep on keeping on, you know you’re not alone”.
It is actually in her ability to balance hope and reality where Barnett finds her strength as a singer-songwriter. This theme is consistent throughout; fun, nostalgic melodies paired with humorously dark lyrics.
Barnett here is free of the traps of romanticism. Instead, she paints a picture of reality – painful, hopeful and complex. Tell Me How You Really Feel is a wonderfully curated record, which manages to be both cynical and whimsical at the same time. The depth of musical ambition and of poetic expression deserve a suitably large audience’s attention.