I always had a great appreciation for jazz, but I’m a very pedestrian musician. I get by. I like to think that my main instrument is vocabulary.
Phrases, lyrics, words, descriptions; since music has been around people have been trying to get their head around them, and there’s no right way or wrong way to write them. Nick Cave says he writes about “quite ordinary human concern, but the process of writing about them transforms them into something else.” Bob Dylan always said he considered himself a poet first and a musician second, whilst Giorgio Moroder said “the meaning of the lyrics is not too important.”
What makes a great lyricist? Jeffrey Lewis is a great lyricist because he’s witty and heartfelt, while Ray Davies has an attention to detail that makes the mundane come to life, Matt Berninger fills each song The National put to record with a an effortless cool, while David Tattersall ensures The Wave Pictures are delightfully, sometime comically odd, and all the better for it.
The one thing we would say is vital to being a great lyricist is finding your own voice, it’s amazing how easy it is to tell whether a songwriter believes in their words, whether they’re discussing love and heartache, global warming, or the fact you can save some money by making coffee at home!
COURTNEY BARNETT – SOMETIMES I SIT AND THINK, AND SOMETIMES I JUST SIT
Courtney Barnett is a self-obsessed songwriter. That’s a highly inflammatory statement to start a review, but this seems to have been missed elsewhere, in all the comments about her character studies, attention to detail and humorous lyricism, it seems to have gone largely unnoticed that Courtney takes every single situation and makes it all about her – and she’s absolutely brilliant at it! Take Aqua Profunda; at the most simple level it’s about someone Courtney took a shine to at her local swimming pool, but in her hands it quickly becomes the tale of Courtney’s failed attempt at athleticism and a failed tumble turn that nearly drowned her. The albums second single, Depreston plays out the troubles of her generation, house hunting in an area you don’t like because you can’t afford the area you do, against the troubles of a disabled widow, she can’t hope to compete in a game of “who’s got bigger problems?” but still ends up in her own head running through her own issues “and it’s going pretty cheap you say, well it’s a deceased estate, aren’t the pressed metal ceilings great?” and even when confronted by the image of a Vietnam soldier, her mind still ticks to her own issues “I wonder what she bought it for?” she asks before concluding “if you’ve got a spare half a million you could knock it down and star rebuilding.” There’s something delightfully honest about the way her mind works, where most songwriters want to show you the big picture and make you consider more than just yourself, Courtney is content to honestly admit that we as a species are selfish, and self-absorbed and we are consumed by our own thoughts – it’s a truly refreshing listen.
Sometimes I Sit And Think Sometimes I Just Sit, is Courtney’s debut album, it follows two well received, and excellent EP’s, smashed together into one in the form of A Sea Of Split Peas. It introduced the world to Courtney’s unique world view, her ability with details, and her dry sense of humour. The success of the EP’s lifted the Melbourne based singers profile and saw her travel the world showcasing the songs, and what songs they were! Take Avant Gardener, a track essentially about panic attacks, that manages to fit in comments about doing up the garden “the yard is full of hard rubbish, it’s a mess, I guess the neighbours must think we run a meth lab, we should amend that.” Having to pay for health care “I’d rather die, than owe the hospital ’til I get old.” and her admiration for paramedics “the paramedic thinks I’m clever because I play guitar, I think she’s clever because she stops people dying.” Lyrically she brought to mind the anti-folk greats like Jeffrey Lewis or Kimya Dawson but infused the words with life via a garage rock sound, last heard coming out of the US in the mid 1990’s.
It’s a trick Courtney and her band repeat on this record; the albums lead single, Pedestrian At Best is a fizzing, garage rock number, exploring similar shades of grunge to those perfected by Antipodean comrades The Vines or The Datsuns, her vocal is delivered as a tumble of words, almost spoken as she tries desperately to cram her words into the spaces available, it all just adds to the laid back, and yes almost slacker vibe on show, although as she revealed in a recent interview her Nan might hunt you down if you suggest Courtney’s not hard working! It’s a spectacularly good track, a giant swirling bounce of joyous rock.
Elsewhere there’s a heap of musical ideas, An Illustration Of Loneliness (Sleepless In NY) adds an almost post-punk feel, courtesy of it’s gently pulsing bass and thrashes of wabbling guitars. Small Poppies has a smoky, blues feel, and Debbie Downer brings to mind Talking Heads, whilst Aqua Profunda is pure Brit-Pop with it’s energetic stabs of distorted guitar, twiddly riffs and walking bass line. Musically, the album is a definite step forward, incorporating a clutch of new ideas and a huge variety of influences.
As good as the music is, and it really is great, it’s hard to listen to anything but the superb lyricisms of Courtney herself; from the opening track, Elevator Operator, she transports you inside her head. On that track she shows her ability as both an expert lyricist and also a great studier of people. In a lineage that runs from Ray Davies through to Damon Albarn, it’s generally been us Brits who’ve been the masters of capturing others, a characteristic of our national identity perhaps, but we’ve always been great at shedding light on the lives of others. Courtney’s character, Oliver Paul, a twenty year old elevator operator, has all the depth and intrigue of Dan Abnormal or the residents of Dead End Street. Oliver throws off his tie, gives up his dead end job and lives out his dream, sure the botoxed lady thinks he’s going to jump off the roof but all he ever wanted to be was an elevator operator.
“I’m not suicidal, just idling insignificantly
I come up here for perception and clarity
I like to imagine I’m playing SimCity
All the people look like ants from up here
And the wind’s the only traffic you can hear”
It’s really rather special, as are her more personal notes. The minute details of her words are spectacular, on Boxing Day Blues she notes “I love all your ideas, you love the idea of me”, on Small Posies she’s lamenting her lawns fate “all different sizes and all shades of green, slashing it down just seems kind of mean” whilst on Kim’s Caravan she almost absentmindedly drops lyrics as good as “we either think we’re invincible or that we are invisible, when realistically we are somewhere in between”, as she reflects on the states of the oceans, while admitting she’s caused her share of the problems.
Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party is a beautiful musing on the melding of different personalities into one single relationship, the eternal battle of the introvert and the extrovert playing out via the internal discussion of “I want to go out but I want to stay home.” The extrovert wins at the start with “it always going your way” with “luck on your side” while in the end the introvert’s happy with her choice – “I’d rather stay in bed with the rain over my head, than have to pick my brain off the floor.” It’s hard to tell whether it’s an argument between two people or simply an internal monologue of two sides of the same being, but it’s all pricked through with her trademark wit “you say “you sleep when you’re dead” I’m scared I’ll die in my sleep, I guess that’s not a bad way to go.”
Picking a favourite track will most likely be down to which taps into your own personal mindset the best, because they’re all just superbly written pieces, but from our point of view it doesn’t get any better than Dead Fox. It’s a musing on the damaging affects of big business, playing off the fumes and roadkill created by the trucks that roll across Australia with the wider stretching affects of big business on local business and the cost of living. If it sounds a little heavy going, it is again all very much written in a non-preaching manner. Courtney admits “never having too much money, I get the cheap stuff at the supermarket but they’re all pumped full of shit, a friend told me that they stick nicotine in the apples.” She recalls a near death experience with a truck-driver “big business overtaking without indicating. He passes on the right, been driving through the night, to bring us the best price.” It’s just another example of her telling us the facts we all know, but admitting again she doesn’t have the answers to solve the problems. She compares the number of deaths in road accidents to ocean deaths and concludes “maybe we should mull over culling cars instead of sharks, or just lock them up in parks where we can go and view them.” It’s a typically astute and perfectly delivered track from someone who’s so rapidly becoming a truly top level songwriter.
Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit is a quote generally attributed to Winnie The Pooh, and in many ways he’s a kindred spirit, because like Winnie there’s more to Courtney than meets the eye. Whilst dear old Winnie wasn’t necessarily seen as the sharpest of academic minds in his ability to see life for what it is, he was quite the master, and in Courtney Barnett, we might just have stumbled across someone who see’s the world in just the same way.
“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard”
Winnie The Pooh
Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit is out now via Marathon Artists (UK), Mom + Pop (US) & Milk Records (Aus/NZ). Courtney Barnett tours the UK throughout March & April (although good luck getting a ticket for most shows!)