Courtney Barnett likes to write songs that drift and meander, smirking and sardonic, until they snap into impressive focus. When you stumble into one of those moments without expecting it, you’ll find yourself remembering it later with unusual clarity. On her impressive debut full-length, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, the Melbourne singer-songwriter shows herself to be possessed of uncommon wit and incisiveness; she’s come to serve as an avatar for a generation of young people with uncertain futures, iffy finances and one tentative foot into the arena of adulthood.
Barnett’s breakout single, 2013’s “Avant Gardener,” was a rambling journey from her backyard garden to the back of an ambulance, thanks to either a panic attack or a fit of allergies; even as she was being ferried to an emergency room, she couldn’t keep herself from cracking wise about the potential hospital bills and her inability to handle a bong. It’s not an intense or propulsive song by any means, but it manages to pick up steam off the strength of its lyrics, crackling and word-drunk. Like a rapper capping off a freestyle or an author cranking out paragraphs in the zone, you can feel Barnett deriving strength from every wry observation and piece of wordplay. She has a way of making listlessness feel vital.
Her first album-length release, The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, was really just two smaller releases bundled together, and so Sometimes I Sit and Think… is her true debut. It builds on the promise of her early work and yanks it up a couple notches, with writing that’s funnier and more poignant than ever and music that’s strong enough to match. Barnett is an avowed fan of bands like Pavement and the Modern Lovers, and their influence is subtly exerted throughout the album — “Small Poppies” in particular sounds like the kind of paranoid, smoked out jam Stephen Malkmus could churn out with one hand circa Wowee Zowee — but she’s really participating in a larger tradition of wordy, whip-smart rock bands, one starting somewhere around the Kinks. Her guitar melodies are sharp and bright, but make no mistake: the focus is on her voice and words, the twin engines that drive her compositions. Spending time with any of these songs is like meeting someone new at work or a bar and finding yourself immediately blown away by the heat radiating from their brain, the speed with which their thoughts unfurl, the intensity of their convictions.
There’s something to love in almost all of Sometimes I Sit and Think…, but single “Depreston” has earned a great share of the plaudits directed towards the album, and rightfully so: it’s the best example of the way Barnett can pull off a hairpin turn with just a line or two. She does it there with a handful of trinkets and a handrail in a shower, transforming a gentle short story about a move away from rapid gentrification into a heartbreaking meditation on mortality and the size of the world. By the time she’s repeating the line, “If you’ve got a / spare half a million / you could knock it down / and start rebuilding,” you find yourself mourning the loves and losses of a woman without a name, one who lives only in a song. It’s utterly devastating, and yet the palate cleanser that comes after “Depreston” is even more lovable. That’s “Aqua Profunda!,” a two minute blast from a municipal pool that finds Barnett nearly drowning because she’s trying to impress a looker in the next lane over. It’s funnier than it sounds; in fact, it’s uproarious, dense with quotable quips and pieces of personality, with shiny riffs buzzing like static off a blanket. (The best line, tossed off like loose change: “I sunk like a stone / like a first owner’s home loan.”) This is why Barnett’s made one of the strongest albums of the year: even her minor efforts glow and sparkle with attitude, intelligence, and good humor.
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