When the Grammy nominees for Best New Artist were announced for 2016, alongside mega pop star (and eventual winner) Meghan Trainor was the Australian indie rocker Courtney Barnett. The nomination came, seemingly, out of nowhere, but clearly enough of the right people were paying attention. Barnett’s 2015 debut album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, was a satisfying throwback to ’90s slackerdom inflected with crunchy guitars. On it, she riffed on mundane scenes–like shopping for organic produce, lying awake with insomnia and house-hunting in the suburbs–with a fiery rock-‘n’-roll energy.
Barnett’s latest, Tell Me How You Really Feel (out May 18), continues down that path. Her guitar is still a focal point, but in these arrangements she and her band experiment with tempos in new and surprising ways. Throughout the album’s 10 tracks, Barnett, 30, has traded in her casual observations of everyday life for something more introspective, and it suits her well. On Sometimes I Sit, she often sounded like she was speaking her stream of consciousness aloud instead of singing. Here, she sounds like she’s having a conversation with someone who’s royally peeved her. In other words, she’s more content to, well, tell us how she really feels.
On the slow-burn opener “Hopefulessness,” she describes a scene littered with “empty bottle blues” and people sleeping in different rooms, her disdain for their malaise dripping palpably off the notes. On “Charity,” she assumes an accusatory tone, singing, “You must be having so much fun, everything’s amazing,” a biting critique that’s easily interpreted as a slight to today’s Instagram-obsessed, selfie-taking culture. And on the jangly “Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence,” passion-soaked paranoia comes to full fruition as she turns her gaze inward, confessing, “I don’t know anything” and “I never feel as stupid as when I’m around you.”
Indie rock as a celebrated genre has taken a back seat this decade to the chart domination of global pop, country and hip-hop stars. But Barnett is proof that it’s far from dead. Her sound is a throwback to a time that existed not so long ago, when dirty, bluesy guitars and a rhythm section paired with clever lyrics was the sound du jour. And right now, she’s the best thing indie rock has going for it, fast becoming one of the more interesting musicians documenting life in a hyper-self-aware society.
This appears in the May 28, 2018 issue of TIME.
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