Open the gatefold sleeve encasing Courtney Barnett‘s ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’, and one encounters a familiar visage: their own. Rather than a merely attractive design feature, the interior’s mirror board effect is subtly — if not infuriatingly — brilliant. A distinctly introspective effort, Barnett‘s sophomoric release finds the artist turning “her gaze inward to study how the world and the people in it are affecting her.” Considering this, peering behind Barnett‘s intimate cover portrait amounts to confronting the Australian musician’s emotional state. The result, like much of ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’, is dark, haunting, and cathartic.
Although Barnett‘s deadpan witticisms and post-Surrealist imagery have been her de facto trademarks since 2013’s ‘History Eraser’, lead single ‘Nameless, Faceless‘ heralds the album’s grittier turn. More abrasive than 2015’s ‘Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit‘, ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’ more closely resembles the dark psychedelia found on ‘Kim’s Caravan’ than jovial ‘Aqua Profunda!’ or “Chill Nice” ‘Depreston’. Channeling a self-titled-era-Black-Sabbath atmosphere, opening track ‘Hopefulessness’ primes listeners for a somber experience while the self-addressed ‘I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch’ represents Barnett‘s ‘Plastic Ono Band’ moment. Recalling the LP’s packaging, listeners are invited to embrace whatever vitriol the record sonically invites.
Presumably, some may lament (or, initially resist) this overarching vibe. Whimsical tunes are largely absent here, as is the slacker rock feel that characterized 2014’s ‘The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas’; however, Barnett‘s excellence remains. During the aforementioned ‘Nameless, Faceless,’ an overtly political tune addressing fragile masculinity, numerous elements coalesce to invigorate audiences.
Musically alternating between sunny verses and riot grrrl refrain, Barnett invokes Margaret Atwood during the song’s chorus (“I wanna walk through the park in the dark / Men are scared that women will laugh at them / I wanna walk through the park in the dark / Women are scared that men will kill them“) before bluntly responding to anonymous trolling (“He said ‘I could eat a bowl of alphabet soup / and spit out better words than you’ / But you didn’t“). At this point, Barnett transmutes an already-satisfying effort into a literary critic’s dreamscape as she briefly hesitates between “Man you’re kidding yourself if you think” and “The world revolves around you” à la Carly Simon.
Elsewhere, ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’ offers sturdy rock ‘n’ roll structures. The lolling ‘City Looks Pretty’ pleasantly languishes prior to an emphatic guitar solo whereas ‘Help Your Self’ and ‘Walkin’ on Eggshells’ vaguely evoke The Steve Miller Band. Having waded through emotional muck, ‘Sunday Roast’ leaves audiences feeling wholesome as Barnett‘s handwritten lyrics (superimposed over the listener’s reflection) affirm: “I know you’re doin’ your best / I think you’re doing just fine / Keep on keepin’ on / Y’know you’re not alone.”
‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’ is not ‘Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit’ 2.0, and to expect — or hope — otherwise would be regrettable disservice to oneself. Having already delivered laid-back grooves and endearing tomfoolery over the past five years, Barnett might have stagnated had she not turned inwards for her sophomore LP. By taking the time to collect herself, Barnett has crafted an record that connects with listeners on a deeply personal, and heretofore unfamiliar, level, and it feels so, so good.
The full tracklist is as follows:
2. City Looks Pretty
4. Need a Little Time
5. Nameless, Faceless
6. I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch
7. Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Self Confidence
8. Help Your Self
9. Walkin’ On Eggshells
10. Sunday Roast