The Australian singer/songwriter’s finger-on-the-pulse lyrics are eerily relatable.
By Elijah Watson, University of Texas at Austin
Rock music is fucking boring. There. I said it.
It’s a cynical but accurate declaration: loud drums, guitars and personalities are ideas of the past. Today’s rockstars are DJs, producers, rappers — remember that time Kanye West proclaimed rap was the new rock and roll and, more importantly, he was the number one rockstar on the planet, earlier this year? You can agree or disagree with the guy, but there’s some truth to his statement.
When was the last time a guitar-wielding artist was a part of mainstream music dialogue? Occasionally Jack White makes an appearance, only to offer us some eccentric record release plan (such as the 2012 balloon launch).
But the current conversation is about pop, post dub-and-wub EDM, rap, trap and Adele (after the many accolades she’s received in such a short amount of time since her album debuted, she deserves mentioning).
It’s a sign of the times and I understand that. My favorite album of 2015 (which we’ll get to before the end of this month) is a rap album, after all. But I missed the beauty of a brash and loud guitar, a much more uncommon and unwanted guest in comparison to its counterparts.
“I must confess I’ve made a mess of what should be a small success / But I digress at least I’ve tried my very best / I guess.”
Then arrived Courtney Barnett, an Australian singer songwriter whose self deprecating wit and dynamic guitar riffs immediately led to comparisons to Kurt Cobain.
It’s an apt proclamation: behind those bold, feedback fueled riffs, are anxious lyrics that are doubtful, frank and insecure. Similar to Cobain there’s an earnestness in Barnett’s writing that’s so exposed that the comparison was inevitable.
My introduction to Barnett was the first single off of her debut album, Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, titled “Pedestrian At Best.” Power chords roar confidently, leading into a verse driven by bass and Barnett’s deadpan vocal delivery.
Barnett’s existential rambling is a crucial part of Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit’s appeal. It’s confessional at all times, a collection of anxious and conflicting thoughts that are present throughout the album’s eleven tracks.
What makes Barnett so interesting as a lyricist is her use of phrasing, piling together so many words but delivering them in a way that emphasizes the overall tone of the song.
Sure, it’s sometimes overwhelming, the words wrapping themselves around you, grasping for your attention. But maybe that’s Barnett’s goal—to translate that same apprehension and discomfort to her listeners as best as she can.
That’s not to say that Barnett doesn’t have a sense of humor, because she does, albeit a morbid one. “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party,” another standout single from the album, addresses the dilemma of staying in or going out for the night, with Barnett ultimately wishing she had stayed home.
“I wanna go out but I wanna stay home” she repeats during the chorus, the declaration a reflection of FOMO culture, where we shouldn’t mind being by ourselves for an evening, but ultimately we succumb to the pressures of going out.
It’s moments like these where the Barnett and Cobain comparisons begin to make sense.
She captures the voice of a generation although she doesn’t necessarily want to be the voice of a generation. “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you,” she warns in “Pedestrian At Best.”
In all of Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit’s neuroticism, this is one of the album’s more declarative moments, Barnett’s apprehensiveness towards her growing popularity something she’s not quite sure she really wants.
But no one is capturing the concerns and feelings of most twentysomethings quite like Barnett. Alongside “Pedestrian At Best” and “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party,” there’s “Depreston,” another single that poignantly addresses gentrification, settling down and existentialism.
When asked about being called the voice of a generation in an interview with The Independent, Barnett sidestepped the accolade. “I don’t know really,” she said. “I guess what I’m writing is just quite matter-of-fact and present-day kind of stuff. I guess it’s kind of relatable in that way. And, uh, yeah.”
It’s a fitting response for the artist that’s finally coming into her own, and preparing for the next stage in her career. She doesn’t need to be the voice of a generation: We just want to believe she is because no one’s writing music that’s as compelling and vulnerable as what she’s written.