Depression is as persistent a rock and roll muse as infatuation, lust, or joy.
Some artists have wallowed in despair. Others have railed ferociously against their darker moods. A few have succumbed with an eerie resignation that typically bodes ill. Some phonies just fake it to cast the illusion of depth. (We true saddos can always sniff ’em out though.) Music offers as many responses to misery as there are experiences of it, and Courtney Barnett’s Tell Me How You Really Feel serves up yet one more: The 30-year-old Australian songwriter simply tries to wait the bad times out.
That hardly sounds like an exhilarating prospect, I know, and Barnett has churned up all the music writing euphemisms we haul out for a critical darling’s album no. 2—difficult, divisive, disappointing. So here’s a friendlier “di-” adjective: distinctive. Like the boy she once sang about in “Elevator Operator,” Barnett is “not suicidal, just idling insignificantly” here. But significance ain’t everything. As beleaguered rock star encores go, Tell Me How You Really Feel is a far cry from In Utero. But I bet we get to keep Courtney Barnett and her quiet revelations around longer than we had Nirvana.
Though her full-length debut, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, charmed both simpatico contemporaries and the dad-rock massive with its commonsensical plainspokenness, a sullen undertow always cut against Barnett’s chipper determination. The word “grunge” popped up aplenty when her name was spoken, but what felt most Seattle-flannelly about Barnett during her come up wasn’t so much the “punchy but not precise” stomps that Stephen Thomas Erlewine astutely traces past the obvious ’90s precursors to the not-quite-punk of ’70s U.K. pub rock. It was that premature but never permanent shrug of defeat in her voice that found its expression in fame-averse lyrics like “Put me on a pedestal and I'll only disappoint you.”
So it was predictable that Barnett would join those countless creative predecessors who recoiled from the invasive reality of a prominent rocker’s public life. She temporarily sidestepped the high expectations her breakthrough raised by seeking out the company of the impossibly unperturbed stoner Kurt Vile, but their collaborative effort, Lotta Sea Lice, felt like a holding pattern. The Philly weed-rocker’s den of slack can be a charmingly noncommittal getaway on its own terms, but Barnett felt like an overnight guest. Anyway, she couldn’t put off a follow up forever.
“Hopefulessness,” the opening track on Tell Me How You Really Feel, begins with Barnett bending the low strings of her guitar as desultorily as though she’s devising the riff on the spot to distract herself. Then her brain goes rifling through cliches—”no one’s born to hate,” “Take your broken heart/Turn it into art,” “can’t take it with you”—like she’s scrolling through a Facebook feed clogged with inspirational memes. As the band drifts into action behind her, she murmurs bleak encouragement to herself: “Just get this one done/Then you can move along.” And so the album progresses, getting another one done and moving along, another prop to occupy her time till the gloom dissipates.
An astute observer of the everyday and how it interacts with the perils of gentrification and corporatism in her earlier incarnation, Barnett now observes her own mental state. But it’s a process that feels less like navel-gazing than neuroimaging. Where narrative was once her primary mode, she’s now transcribing the internal dialogue that occurs when the critical voices of others infiltrate your sick brain. The album is haunted by a shiftily floating “you” that could be that great glob of indistinguishable online humanity typing manically into boxes; that could be predatory men; that could be Barnett’s wife, Jen Cloher (or some darkened projection thereof); that could be herself.
Even when she looks outward, Barnett is satisfied with a quick assessment like “the city looks pretty,” or maybe she sees a world conspiring to drive her back inward, like a sign in a shop that says “Please help yourself.” (“Won’t you tell me something new?” she quips back at the message.) And she can’t shout herself past her doubts. Despite its squalls of feedback and venomous lyrics, “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch” is furiously uncathartic, as though its singer is doomed to push her rage up to the chorus repeatedly only to watch it roll back down again. Vocally, Barnett more often bobs along the melody here, singing with a double-consciousness, expressing an idea and simultaneously sounding as though she’s reflecting on her own expression.
And yet, her music is as up as ever. Even as Barnett’s lyrics question her ability to communicate, her guitar has become more eloquent, or at least more expressive in its lack of eloquence. Some of her riffs start in one direction, then double back, only to coalesce into something peculiar and memorable. The guitar part on “Charity” is downright Pavement-y, and when time comes to force-feed a Twitter troll till he explodes on “Nameless, Faceless” or get right down to basics with "Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Self-Confidence," Barnett enlists Kelley and Kim Deal for a boost of alt-buoyance. Just as she’s too even-keeled to bellow or to sulk, she’s too plucky to ever abandon tune entirely.
Sitting with a depressed pal while she gets her shit together isn’t everybody’s idea of a lark, so it’s understandable if you’d rather let Barnett work this all out on her own and check back in when she’s ready to lift the blinds again. Me, I hear Barnett’s rejection of epiphanies as its own insight. We all want the sufferer to return from the darkness bearing newfound wisdom and revelling in self-discovery. But Barnett recognizes her darkest moods as only an obstacle to self-discovery, as moments to be endured. In tracing the mundane ways depression infiltrates our imagination, she uncovers its true secret: that it has no secrets to tell us, only lies.