Reviewed by Nicholas Horgan
Courtney Barnett’s previous solo releases, 2013s A Tale of Split Peas and 2015s Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Think, largely consisted of humorous, judgment free narratives whose rambling lyrics found meaning in the slightest of minutiae. On Tell Me How You Really Feel, Barnett follows her own advice, shedding clever witticisms and engaging anecdotes for vitriol and passion. The sophomore album is typically a challenging release for Australian artists, with many fading into obscurity upon the release of an inferior second album (examples include, but are not limited to: Operator Please, Wolfmother, End of Fashion). Indeed, it seems that the Australian music scene is not very accommodating for artists who take a misstep after leaving an initial impressive footprint. I anticipate that this will not be a problem for Barnett, however, for two simple reasons:
1) Courtney Barnett has a substantial overseas following in both the UK and the US (Obama listens to her!! I wonder if Trump does too); and
2) Her latest album is a certified banger.
Tell Me How You Really Feel starts off strong with the looming Hopefulessness, which is all murmured breathy vocals, cool chromatic guitar ostinatos, seething synths, and feedback ridden guitars looming in the background, threatening to break into the foreground at any moment. They make good on this threat at the 3:28 mark after Barnett appropriately declares ‘getting louder now.’ The darkly lurching feel of Hopefulnessness is worlds away from the twee and boppy Elevator Operator that starts off Sometimes I Sit…, and this darker tone is maintained throughout the entire album instilling in the listener a vague sense of unease. This darker tone is reflected in the lyrics as well, which departs from the first album’s affinity with finding meaning in the mundane, instead preferring to dwell on the monotony inherent in the search for meaning.
The arrangements to the songs are substantially more complex, layered and thick when compared to Barnett’s earlier work. This is especially obvious in the plethora of feedback guitar overdubs swirling around in City Looks Pretty, the expert manipulation of tone colours between the different sections of Nameless Faceless, and the lead lines that are pushed to the forefront of pretty much all the songs. Likewise, the bass playing seems to have undergone a metamorphosis — On Barnett’s earlier work, the bass was Kim Deal levels of simplicity, whilst here the bass seems to be all McCartney-esque melodic counter melodies, interacting beautifully with the vocal melodies and guitars. Great work Bones Sloane, keep it up. Great work also to Dave Mudie for the great drumming as well – not bad an accountant. For me, the album highlight was probably I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch, calling to mind Nirvana at their most abrasive and discordant.
Overall, Tell Me How You Really Feel is sometimes abrasive, usually insightful and always interesting, and that is how I really feel.