Australian songwriter Courtney Barnett blew up out of nowhere with her first major statement, a double EP called A Sea of Split Peas. She took boisterous garage rock and used it as a platform to express the myriad thoughts that hover around millennials, expressing fully and articulately the ideas that usually get watered down into one-off twitter messages. For me, songs like “Avant Gardener” and “Out of the Woodwork” illicit that strange sensation of having what you believe is a personal and unique thought expressed (better) by someone else. Through the whole album, Barnett takes traits that often evoke artifice and obfuscation (self-depreciation, cleverness, sarcasm) and uses them to clearly and humbly express basic truths. And man, the music kicks. Backing band The Courtney Barnetts sidestep the expected garage rock sloppiness to create jams as cutting and clear as Barnett’s lyricism.
Now the sequel has arrived, and I can’t help but feel let down. In all honesty Sometimes I Sit and Think is just as strong an effort as Split Peas, but it’s also, worryingly, almost exactly the same thing. “Tell me I’m exceptional, I promise to exploit you” she sings on “Pedestrian at Best,” and it’s a sentiment that stings a bit more than she seems to have intended. It’s like Barnett had mastered her own specific sound the first time and chose to work it even harder this second time out. “Pedestrian” is a rattling echo of the churning “History Eraser,” the bleary-eyed “Small Poppies” is kissing cousins with the more sweetly romantic “Anonymous Club,” “Depreston” chums nervously with “Are You Looking After Yourself,” and so on. Frankly, if there is a major difference between these two discs, it’s the notable loss of the doofy humor that cropped up pretty frequently on Split Peas. The drunken pillaging and masturbation jokes of old are replaced by songwriting that is just as funny but remarkably less goofy. Respectable as hell but nowhere near as endearing.
Of course, this isn’t really fair to Barnett. Her style is relatively unique, and she has talent for days (and the means to express it). She’s a storyteller at heart, creating characters that may or may not reflect her own psyche and tossing them into this wild world of ours. She’s also a master of detail: the “Tracy Jacks” analogue in “Elevator Operator” worries about his nonexistent bald spot, builds coke can pyramids on the beach, and takes the elevator all the way up so he can “idle insignificantly” and look down on the city SimCity style.
The love songs are just as tightly woven, and all those details give them a verisimilitude that is easy to appreciate. The fumbling swimmer in “Aqua Profonda!” falls for a fellow athlete in the next lane over without actually seeing what he looks like (blame the foggy goggles), then passes out trying to show off.
And then there’s the most Barnett-y topic of all, introversion. “Nobody Really Cares if You Don’t Go to the Party” crashes headlong into its indelible chorus: “I wanna go out but I wanna stay home.” It’s a prickly sentiment that couldn’t have been stated more clearly and emphatically.
Just like on Split Peas though, the star here is the song that holds a mirror up to society and points out all the funhouse distortions. “Depreston” is a beautiful, low-key house shopping fable, packed with tossed-off asides that cut to the bone. It strikes an incredibly touching balance midway through, comparing the strange sensation of exploring another person’s abode with a chilling mantra from the realtor: “If you’ve got a spare half a million, you could knock it down and start rebuilding.” Like the “should get married, have some babies, watch the evening news” line from “Are You Looking After Yourself,” it’s a perfect mental breakdown captured in so much pseudo advice.
So sure, Courtney Barnett is stuck within her schtick, and her schtick just happens to be writing really good garage rock songs with great lyrics. 2 wonderful albums are always better than one, but I think I would have traded this second go for an interesting failure rather than the opportunity to have my cake and eat it too. Barnett’s persona is an introverted one, more comfortable on the couch than in a crowd. I fear her music might become as lazy as her characters can be.
Luckily, we aren’t there yet.
Courtney Barnett speaks truths on Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit: “I much prefer swimming to jogging” (“Aqua Profonda!), “Never having too much money/ I get the cheap stuff at the Supermarket/ but they’re all pumped up with shit” (“Dead Fox”), “I think you’re a joke/ but I don’t find you very funny” (“Pedestrian at Best”), “I don’t know quite who I am/ oh but man I am trying” (“Small Poppies”).
Now, maybe these maxims and descriptions aren’t so ironclad as “know thyself” or “memento mori,” but they’re a hell of a lot more useful when you’re young.
The appeal of Courtney Barnett’s lyrical approach lays in both its generality and specificity. I’ve lived portions of “Dead Fox,” especially when buying food for my dorm on a tight budget. I do in fact prefer swimming to jogging, but I don’t do much of either. “Nobody Really Cares if You Don’t Go to the Party” is something I still reckon with, especially the part where the song goes, “You say ‘You sleep when you’re dead/’ I’m scared I’ll die in my sleep.”
And if you’ve been young before with romantic problems and insecurities—who hasn’t—then Barnett’s got plenty of lines for you to repeat ad infinitum.
Of course, she repeats herself often as well, like the clincher she repeats at the end of and throughout “An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York):” “I’m thinking of you too.” Or the line trailing through “Kim’s Caravan:” “So take what you want from me.”
While repetition drives the point home on those two tracks, it’s the songs where Barnett can find maximum variation that she really shines. The real stunners are the story songs (“Elevator Operator,” “Dead Fox,” “Depreston,” “Aqua Profonda!”) which are often matched by the just as stunning tract i.e. philosophizing songs (“An Illustration of Loneliness,” “Small Poppies”).
The music throughout, like Barnett’s lyrics, relies on maximum impression, especially in the guitar assault, which proves as varied as Barnett’s subjects.
It’s not an album that really missteps, even if it’s got a few songs (“Debbie Downer,” “Boxing Day Blues”) that lack some of their compatriots’ caliber. That said, Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit is so charming, with and without a few clunkers.
“I think you’re a joke/ but I don’t find you very fu-uha-uha-uha-uha-unny”