Courtney Barnett’s “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit,” released March 23, starts with a story of a man who cut work to go watch the world from the top of a skyscraper. Barnett speaks from his perspective: “I’m not suicidal, just idling insignificantly / I come up here for perception and clarity / I like to imagine I’m playing SimCity.” There isn’t any sting or irony to the song; it’s simply the story of a man “idling insignificantly.” These words capture the entire essence of the Australian singer-songwriter’s garage rock album. It’s an album full of stories about the mundane and inconsequential. The beauty of Barnett’s work, however, is in the way she captures the ordinary — with shades of complexity, empathy and half-humored boredom.
Barnett is currently enjoying a chain of recent successes; she was notably featured by international music magazines, including Pitchfork in 2013 and Stereogum in 2014, which both also gave her album stellar reviews. Barnett has been releasing compilations and EPs off her Milk! Records label since 2013. Now, this album, off the label Mom+Pop Music, stands as her debut full-length record. It marks a highlight in Barnett’s climb to prominence as a leader of the current Australian indie rock and garage rock scenes.
Barnett’s work is fueled by two contrasting sounds. One is the angry, distorted guitar that drives Barnett’s garage rock sounds. The other is Barnett’s singing, which has a less abrasive quality than her guitar; it is a middle ground between a scream and a yawn. There is something humored about Barnett’s delivery, an understanding of the essential comic value of her subject: the little oddities and quirks of being in your late twenties and a bit burnt out.
The record pulls in influences from all brands of vintage rock, including the surf-rock inspired “Aqua Profonda!” which tells the story of Barnett trying to impress a guy at the pool with her backstroke and lung capacity. On tracks like “Debbie Downer,” Barnett borrows from the synth-fused rock sounds emblematic of bands like The Doors.
In the album’s second track “Pedestrian at Best,” Barnett flexes her grunge muscles with loud, electric guitar power chords and riffs. “Pedestrian at Best” also has an accompanying music video, in which Barnett plays a woman working as an unsuccessful clown at a small entertainment park. The video focuses on the “Clown of the Year 2013” award, a pennant which Barnett’s character wears; Barnett’s character glumly gazes over at a successful clown at the park, wearing the current “Clown of the Year 2014” pennant, while entertaining a crowd of several dozen happy, laughing park-goers. Meanwhile, Barnett sings: “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you.” The line, juxtaposed with Barnett’s clown attire, puts a humorous twist on standing in the spotlight. Barnett recognizes the attention she’s been receiving, but she embraces this success with a sense of irony. She sings: “I think you’re a joke but I don’t find you very funny.”
One of the album’s bleakest moments comes on the track “Depreston,” in which the listener finds Barnett going to an open house in Preston, a suburb of Melbourne. Barnett describes all the little memories and stories that physically manifest themselves in the house: “a photo of a young man in a van in Vietnam,” a “collection of those canisters” that have accumulated over the years. Finally, Barnett ends the song with the hook: “If you’ve got a spare half million / you could knock it down and start rebuilding.”
Barnett’s album is presented as a tribute to all those little moments of insignificance. Even vengefulness is offered with a sense of dullness on the song “Small Poppies.” She sings, “At the end of the day it’s a pain that I keep seeing your name / but I’m sure it’s a bore being you.” Barnett’s album isn’t a tour de force of noise and harshness — it’s an ode to the quiet quirks of everyday life. Its quality comes from the execution of Barnett’s outlook — from the way she can use a single verse to contextualize the existential beauty of the bored and ordinary.