#3. Courtney Barnett: Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
Earlier this year Rolling Stone referred to Courtney Barnett as “Jerry Seinfeld with a fuzz pedal.” It’s an interesting way to describe the 28-year-old Melbourne rocker. At her most verbose, Barnett can take what some would consider myopic topics and spin captivating, amusing lyrics around them. And while her songs are much more than comedy routines about the mundane, she does have a sharp sense of humor than often shines through in her music. But even more impressive than her witty musings about trivialities is the way she can move you to tears through nothing but lyrical subtext.
On one end of her spectrum is the self-belittling mediocrity anthem “Pedestrian at Best,” which boasts some of the most compellingly fresh ways to sing about the inner struggle of living with newfound fame. Barnett refers to her “internal monologue” as “saturated analog,” and she bemoans “the rats are back inside my head,” wanting to “wash (it) out with turpentine.” She describes herself as “underworked and oversexed,” and quips, “give me all your money and I’ll make some origami.” Trying to keep up with her quick tongue can make your head swim, but luckily the loping groove laid down by her electric guitar pulls you along comfortably.
Meanwhile, acoustic ballad “Depreston” tells a superficially mundane story about a couple looking to buy a home in the suburbs. Peel back the lyrics and peek in between the lines, however, and you’ll find heart-wrenching undertones about mortality and insignificance. The title is a play on the town of Preston, where its story takes place, and the word "depression." Throughout the course of the song, Barnett’s mind migrates from the realtor’s sales pitch to thoughts of the previous tenants, a deceased elderly couple. The observational lyrics begin to suggest parallels between the old couple who lived out their days in the house, and the singer and her partner as they consider moving into the same home. Suddenly, what was supposed to be the next chapter in her life feels like it could become the closing scene. The last line, “if you’ve got a spare half a million / you could knock it down and start rebuilding,” begins as an innocuous remark from the realtor. But as Barnett chews over those words, knocking down the house starts to feel like erasing the final memory of the elderly couple. By the time the song ends, signing the lease on a suburban home feels like signing one’s soul away to terminable banality. The record fades to silence before its closing slide guitar solo finishes all that it has to say—yet another poignant parallel to the ephemeral future that the house in Preston represents.
Barnett is a master juggler, balancing silly observational lyrics with deeper meanings that are nuanced with melancholia and self-deprecation. Her lyrics are what make her so special, but her music is so good that it works even with the vocals stripped away. If you’ve watched the NFL at all this season, you’ve probably heard them playing the rock instrumental from “Pedestrian at Best.” Her bass-drum-heavy style gives the records less of a bounce and more of a trudge, but somehow they never lose their momentum. This off-kilter brand of rock is the perfect tapestry for her one-of-a-kind lyrics, and it’s part of what makes her music so universally accessible.