Tell Me How You Really Feel is an album that doesn’t pander.
Like many other artists, Courtney Barnett wears her influences on her sleeve, whether it happens to be, in her case, Cobain, Malkmus, Mascis or Dando. But unlike other artists, she can transcend her influences and make her sound her own in as quick a time as it takes for you to recognize them.
Emerging, seemingly out of nowhere, as a poet of everyday life with the type of slacker delivery that lulls you into taking her deceptively subtle melodies for granted, Barnett’s first album was a revelation, generating as hits the melancholy “Depreston” as well as the sizzling “Pedestrian at Best.” After a foray into collaboration with Kurt Vile, Barnett is back with an excellent sophomore effort that proves not only her talent but also her potential durability.
We are presented with the yin and yang of Barnett’s musical personality from the very start of the album, starting with the slow, delicate dissonance of “Hopefulessness”—“You know what they say/ No one is born to hate/ I’m getting louder now/ Getting louder now”—that builds up until calibrated shrieks of feedback lead us to the pop-punk misanthropy of “City Looks Pretty.”
By this time, it is clear that the album marks a step up in Barnett’s musical ambition, with more dynamic shifts, more unusual choices in arrangement and performance and greater variation in her singing tone. More than ever before, the listener can sit back and enjoy what a sly, crafty vocalist she is, luring you one direction before faking you out and going the other way.
The lyrics, too, feel more effortless and less precious than in earlier recordings. When she sings lines like “Meditation just makes you more strung out/ I wish you had a guru who told you to let it go, let it go,” it’s still conveying something emotional, rather than merely being a witty throwaway. And the lyrical simplicity and emotional directness of a song like “Need a Little Time,” shows off a welcome confidence in a plainer, less show-y style.
That said, there are still classic Barnett moments, the apotheosis of which is the song “Nameless, Faceless” (which is quite Nirvana-inspired, though it doesn’t sound anything like the song whose title it seems to echo, “Endless, Nameless”). This is the most “topical” of her songs, in a sense, a not-especially-ironic send-up of the kind of hate-filled insecure masculinity we see too much of nowadays (“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.”
There are some moments around the middle of the album that start to feel more familiar, less distinctive. But things pick up with the scorcher “Help Your Self,” which boasts the best guitar-playing on the album, as well as charismatic speak-singing from Barnett with a tone somewhere between sincere and satirical—“The sign on the shelf says/ ‘Please help yourself.’” And the album closes with the tender and true “Sunday Roast,” which strikes a resounding concluding note of cautious optimism and acceptance.
Tell Me How You Really Feel is an album that doesn’t pander, doesn’t seem to capitulate to what Barnett’s fans already like and expect from her. With a musical maturity beyond her years and a willingness to hew to her own personality, Courtney Barnett is just getting started.