Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel (Milk! Records)

“I’ve got a lot on my mind/but I don’t know how to say it” sings Courtney Barnett on Sunday Roast. Coming at the end of an album called Tell Me How You Really Feel, it’s an almost humorous contradiction that incidentally points to the shortcomings of Barnett’s lyrical approach on the LP.

On her vibrant debut, Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, Barnett knew exactly “how to say it”, unpacking her mind for the listener through quirky and memorable snapshots of everyday life. On her follow-up, the Australian singer-songwriter tackles the big topics of depression and mental health in much vaguer ways which have all been heard before, resulting in a cliche-packed overview that fails to say anything insightful about the topics, over music that ranges from fun to boring.

As an album opener, Hopefulessness marks a conscious change of mission statement from her first album, starting on a gentle moody guitar riff. Her vocals are quiet, close-up, and full of uncertainty and hesitation, navigating the tune uncomfortably as she sings “I don’t wanna/I don’t wanna know”. It perfectly matches the album cover – an intimate close-up of Barnett’s face looking concernedly into the camera. The slow-building song is largely unremarkable musically, but works as a strikingly different opener from Sometimes I Sit And Think’s bouncy lead-off Elevator Operator.

City Looks Pretty follows and puts us back in familiar CB territory with her bouncy indie-rock jangle and an infectious verse melody, though the vocals still have a plaintive quality. It’s immediately satisfying, crisp and sunny. The chorus interestingly mixes sadness and shrug-off avoidance – “Sometimes I get sad/it’s not all that bad/one day, maybe never/i’ll come around”.

The way Barnett tackles the dominant theme of depression and mental health on this album, as in the above line, is often puzzling and full of avoidance, repeatedly bringing it up then shrugging it off – for instance the “oh well” in City Ain’t Pretty, followed by “waking up to another dismal day… you oughta be grateful”. Plus, standpoint issues aside, it lacks many of the memorable character sketches and imagery of her first album, opting for a blunter approach that results in many lyrically unmemorable songs full of hooks like “you must be having so much fun/everything’s amazing” or “I know you’re doing your best/I think you’re doing just fine/keep on keeping on/you know you’re not alone”. Not the most convincing motivation I’ve received.  

Because Barnett has such a distinctive style, if the lyrics aren’t pulling their weight then the heavily accented vocals, similar vocal phrasings, and simple bouncy drum-and-guitar rhythms get monotonous very fast for lack of variety.

Need A Little Time, Charity and Crippling Self Doubt boast poppier, sugarier choruses than anything she’s done before, undisguised attempts at an earworm hook, but are musically bland. The album’s most memorable hook is actually the surprisingly noisy chorus to Nameless, Faceless, where Barnett’s distorted vocals describe holding her keys between her fingers as she walks through a park in the dark, while the band rip through some noisy chords.

On I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch, the raw punchy instrumental, wild vocal delivery and wonky guitar solo combine to make the album’s best song by a mile, which is sadly also its shortest at under two minutes. It’s wild and eccentric, simmering with anger, and exactly what I’d love to hear more of from Barnett. The wistful and weary Walkin’ On Eggshells is the other highlight, the piano part making a nice addition in timbre and differentiating it from the rest of the album.

Tell Me How You Really Feel undoubtedly has its payoffs – City Looks Pretty, I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch, Nameless, Faceless and Walkin’ On Eggshells are all well worth anyone’s listening time. Yet it’s frustrating how Courtney Barnett takes on such big and important topics without offering anything to say about them for an entire album’s length, and without interesting instrumentals to make up for it. I can’t deny my disappointment that a unique and innovative artist has created an album that, despite bearing all her trademarks, somehow comes off as neither of those things.

Tell Me How You Really Feel is due out on May 18

Ruben Mita