Courtney Barnett became somewhat of a poster child for modern guitar music when she released her excellent debut album Sometimes I Sit And Thin, And Sometimes I Just Sit back in 2015. Immediately, the album gained a fair bit of momentum and buzz, but just as is the case with hype, contrarians began to rear their ugly heads. The criticism bubbled forth from anonymous online people who just couldn’t get over why this seemingly obscure woman had one of the most talked about albums of the year. It won’t surprise you when I say that this criticism was almost certainly rooted in some sort of sexism. People complained about her guitar playing, or her voice, but never what the music amounted to. People also couldn’t get over the cleverness of her lyrics, where sarcasm played a major role in obscuring her more guarded feelings. Now taking all of this into account, Barnett could have continued to make the same type of music, ignoring the criticism lobbed her way. But instead we got Tell Me How You Really Feel, an album whose title doubles as both a sarcastic plea to her detractors and an earnest examination of her inner-self. Largely, the album tackles the concept of criticism, but more so than ever Barnett has proven yet again why she’s one of the most vital voices in music today.
Self-awareness has always been a part of Courtney Barnett’s music, all the way back to her early EPs. But with those EPs and her debut LP, Barnett often used self-awareness to wring humor out of both sheltering her feelings and speaking about the most mundane things with clear-eyed seriousness. Tell Me How You Really Feel flips that duality around where the hidden inner-feelings become examined with a careful eye, all while Barnett attempts to cling to her wit to help get her through some serious stuff. Within its 10 tracks she pokes and prods herself about her own failings, her anxiety, loneliness, and the criticism and misogyny she’s faced throughout her life. The delivery for these serious topics is still quintessential Barnett, with some of her most cleanly performed guitar jams ever.
This shift in overall tone (both thematically and literally) hits you immediately with album opener “Hopefulessness,” whose slow climb to a dark guitar jam at its climax is one of the finest things on the entire album. The track also works as a piece that sets the entire record in motion, literally. It starts dark and slightly ominous with its guitar tones, a sound that we haven’t quite heard Barnett do before. As it progresses, the song begins to build confidence in its melody as Barnett sings “just get this one done, then you can move along” before coming to a swirling, heavy conclusion. The lyrics play into the way the instruments come in and build up, making it the sonic equivalent of Barnett assembling her backing band and preparing to jam into the rest of the record. Its dark cloud of sound and anxious-riddled themes also set the tone for the seriousness to follow. But more so than that, it highlights the sheer force of nature that is Barnett’s guitar playing.
“City Looks Pretty” picks right back up with the concept of moving forward as we hear Barnett venturing outside after being “indoors for 23 days.” The guitar melodies highlight this venture into the world as they become much sunnier and more clearly-defined. The overall soundscape at this track’s open also showcases the seamless energy of Barnett’s full band. Initially, the song seems content to jam its way to a quick finish, but just as you think it’s over the song shifts into a gorgeous 2 minute outro. Th jam-packed sounds at the song’s start sonically replicate Barnett’s overwhelming feelings of finally seeing the outdoors. But as things become more focused for her, she earnestly sings “the city looks pretty from where I’m standing” alongside lilting instrumentation that glides into a crystal clear guitar solo. If the opener paints a scene of Barnett struggling to feel better and get out of the house, “City Looks Pretty” soundtracks her lonely walk outside, tracking her movement from day into night.
As the album progresses, we get just as much variety as on her debut album, but this time out things sound much more confident than before. Melodies are crisper, guitar tones are cleaner, and the jamming has a wider focus on all the players involved. But make no mistake, this is still very much a showcase of Barnett’s genius. “Charity” has a more wide-eyed guitar melody than almost anything we heard on her debut. And its chorus of “you must be having so much fun, everything’s amazing, so subservient I make myself sick, are you listening?” is odd yet easily the most immediate hook on this LP. “Need A Little Time” begins to wind things down before disrupting that sense of calm with more outright slamming guitar jams. The sunnier guitar tones rear their head again later on the album on “Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Self Confidence,” a title that sums up a large portion of Barnett’s personal examinations on this LP. Its refrain of “I don’t know, I don’t know anything” plays with the brightness of the main melody, and although it might sound somewhat lacking at first, it hits you harder and harder on repeat listens.
Elsewhere, at the album’s midpoint we get two back to back tracks full of anger and heavy guitar venom. “Nameless Faceless” and “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch” focus Barnett’s internal criticism to the world at large. Naturally, both play into the concept of generalized misogyny and male aggression. The heaviness of their sounds sets them, somewhat awkwardly apart from everything else on the record. “Nameless Faceless” starts off with a clear head, but once it hits the chorus, things go dark with heavier guitar tones and lyrics that reference Margaret Atwood’s famous quote “men are scared that women will laugh at them, women are scared that men will kill them.” The song works as both a takedown of criticism Barnett has faced, while also addressing the larger conversation of angry men and how these two ideas intercept. “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch” is less clear on its themes other than its own title. It’s more of a vague takedown on anyone that looks down on other people for whatever reason. It’s also much more of an onslaught of heavier punk energy than “Nameless Faceless,” whose sounds seem to be present only to really highlight Barnett’s anger. Both compliment each other perfectly, but their outright vicious sounds stand apart from many of the songs here. But still, do they have killer guitar slaying from Barnett? Absolutely.
The last three tracks on the record all sort of work together as well, but in the opposite way as the angry middle two. These show a more easygoing side of things, but each have lyrical themes that refer to Barnett’s internal failings, so it seems. “Help Your Self” and “Walkin’ On Eggshells” each highlight the title Tell Me How You Really Feel and how that as a concept stretches not only to others but to Barnett herself. Album closer “Sunday Roast” strips things down instrumentally, and becomes more overwhelmingly about the comfort of being around others. This trio of songs build upon the sounds and themes that came before while also wrapping things up in a neat package. If you examine the album as Barnett starting alone before heading into the outside world, her journey comes to satisfying close by album’s end when she finds herself joining friends and family for a meal. On an album that is more or less about feeling down on oneself, with anger protruding out into the larger landscape of the world, “Sunday Roast” is the reminder that love amongst friends is a powerful force for grounding yourself.
Once the album closes out, it becomes clear that although it sounds like Barnett has struggled in between albums, she’s come out the other side more confident than before. It’s a much more unified album than her debut, and its clarity in the instrumental palette is one of the biggest takeaways for it improving upon what came before. Sometimes I Sit And Think… is a great record, but its all-over-the-place sounds and general garage rock peppiness never quite comes together as a whole piece of work. Back then, she was keen to veil both her words her sounds. Guitars were fuzzier and fidgety while the lyrics layered her seriousness with sarcastic one-liners. But with Tell Me How You Really Feel the veil has been lifted and what emerges is some of Barnett’s most earnest, and energized music to date. The 90s throwback style of her debut has been reshaped into something clearer, more melodic, and more sure of itself. Which incidentally seems to mimics Barnett’s headspace here. The record has more layers of subtlety, sure, but Barnett’s fearlessness (and sometimes viciousness) keep you on your toes constantly. While she rips out intense, gorgeous, and soaring guitar melodies all over this record, her vocals reach new levels of expansive emotion. Her debut showed all the skills abound in her being, but this album underlines her as one of the most naturally engaging people making music right now. Don’t let this record get lost in the shuffle.
4.3 out of 5.