Hopeful and hopeless mesh in Courtney Barnett's indie rock
NORTH ADAMS — Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett has given us a new word.
"Hopefulessness" is the title of her second solo album's first track. Released in May, "Tell Me How You Really Feel" has commanded critical acclaim for lyrics that explore serious topics (e.g., misogyny) through an ambiguous mix of detachment and rage, a soundtrack set for this time. Currently touring behind its release, the indie rocker will stop at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art's Courtyard C on Thursday (July 12) night.
"It's one show that everybody's really excited about," Barnett told The Eagle during a recent telephone interview.
Enthusiasm is sporadic in Barnett's latest record. Perhaps no track conveys her ambivalence more than the opener.
"It's kind of like an optimistic melancholia," Barnett said of "hopefulessness." "It's just that push and pull of feeling hopeless, of wanting to be hopeful."
At one moment, the song advocates for perseverance.
"Just get this one done, then you can move along," Barnett sings in her deadpan delivery.
But that encouragement, helped by some heavy guitar work, gets drowned out at different moments.
"I don't wanna, I don't wanna know," the indie rocker repeats twice during the tune.
Emotional fluctuation is familiar for Barnett.
"I'm just a very up-and-down kind of person. That's just a constant," the Melbourne resident said.
Yet, from a career standpoint, the 30-year-old's trajectory has been moving in one direction for the past several years. With garage rock and grunge roots, Barnett emerged in 2013 with "Avant Gardener," a song that landed on Pitchfork's best tracks that year. In 2015, she released "Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit." Her first solo album received near-universal acclaim for its nuanced descriptions of the mundane.
"Somehow, the Australian singer-guitarist has made something fresh out of everyday vignettes performed on everyday instruments (guitar-bass-drums). She sounds like she's day-dreaming out loud instead of singing, but she's deceptively incisive as a lyricist," writes Greg Kot in a review for the Chicago Tribune.
"Sometimes I Sit" led to a best new artist nomination at the Grammys. Her sophomore record may merit some hardware this time around due in large part to a more personal touch.
"'Tell Me How You Really Feel' is less specific and quotidian than Barnett's previous albums; this time, she's turned her observational jones inward, attempting to make sense of her mental landscapes," Amanda Petrusich writes for The New Yorker.
"Nameless, Faceless," for example, goes after internet trolls but also expresses empathy. Though Barnett's fame has grown quite a bit over the past few years, she said she hasn't been targeted by too many keyboard warriors.
"It's mostly more about observations of other people, people I know and people I don't know, witnessing that hatred," she said.
Barnett answers questions like she sings; she doesn't betray too much emotion. Her sing-talk style will remind some of Cake, the alt-rock group that performed at Mass MoCA last year. At Courtyard C on Thursday night, spectators may hear "Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence," a track off of the new album she has enjoyed playing at concerts.
"It's kind of on the edge of falling apart the whole time," she said.
Barnett's music can fracture or mend; she just hopes that the effect is strong — or not.
"I want people to feel something," she said, "and [also] give them the freedom to feel nothing for an hour."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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