Courtney Barnett’s Tell Me How You Really Feel, hotly anticipated after the success of her last solo release in 2015, takes some of that heat, compacts it and turns it inward before sending it out in a flurry of blistering guitar work and trademark sardonic vocals.
Barnett has stated that this album is part of a look at herself and her own tendencies towards “jittery personal anxieties,” and a strong effort to lean into, examine, and accept those feelings rather than attempt to stay distant from them or ignore them. The embrace of anxiety lends the album a lot of its nervous, sometimes angry, energy and is pervasive in the lyrics. Occasionally the “too real” recollections of resigned exhaustion with surroundings and people, or frustration with Internet trolls, or reminders to calm down and relax may wear after a bit. When it does, though, Barnett’s trademark dry delivery of superficially mundane statements perks up your interest and the screeching guitars and sometimes sauntering rhythm keep you engaged throughout most of the 10-track album.
The album begins and ends slowly, with the first track being more successful at building your interest than the final track is at keeping you awake until the final minutes. “Hopefulessness,” with its unnecessarily tangled title is one of the best songs on the album. On her previous record, Sometimes I Sit And Think…, Barnett launched you into her official debut with a jaunty track followed shortly by the blast of rock that is “Pedestrian At Best,” and you still had to wait for a few more tracks until you got to the slow burn splendor of “Small Poppies.” This album cuts to the chase—in general, it feels like a more economical delivery of personality and message than Sometimes—and begins the album with its own slow-burn number. “Hopefulessness” builds until Barnett reaches the lyrics “I’m getting louder now,” and her guitar screeches to life with ghostly feedback effects and continues to create a chaotic effect for the final minute of the song. Is it a bit on-the-nose? Well, yes, but it also rocks. The added sound of what seems to literally be a kettle whistling and steaming—the very sound of anxiety?—caps the song and sends you into the meat of the album.
“City Looks Pretty” lifts up the energy pretty quickly, and is one of the instantly catchiest songs on the album. Besides that, it might be the one that lingers inside your mind the most afterward. The music is fairly consistent, upbeat and energetic throughout but the lyrics tell a more interesting story than you might think. Barnett sings about everyday events, but underneath her upbeat music and forward movement lays a slight apathy, or resigned acceptance to a less-than-perfect situation. Barnett laments that “friends treat you like a stranger, and strangers treat you like their best friend – oh, well” alongside telling herself that “sometimes I get sad, it’s not all that bad/ One day, maybe never/ I’ll come around.” The resignation in her possible lack of change or progress is an intriguing flavor to add to the album’s exploration of anxiety. The song soon drops out, and becomes a lot more lethargic in its second-half, perhaps succumbing to the artist’s realization that “I’ll never be what you need.”
Songs like “Charity” and the long, but appropriately, titled “Crippling Self Doubt And a General Lack of Self Confidence” fill out the album with the kind of rock jams you want from Barnett, but don’t distinguish themselves in any major way—excluding the notable and entirely perfect guest backing vocals of Kim and Kelley Deal on “Crippling…”.
In-between those tracks, however, are a trio of interesting, satisfying songs. “Need A Little Time” is very much a part of the “loud quiet loud” rock tradition, to great effect, and Barnett’s vocals glide through the song in a weary, slightly more vulnerable, way than they usually do. “Nameless, Faceless”—right in the middle of the album—was the first single and is still a stand-out track. It’s an excellent, full-blooded righteous “fuck you” to the nameless, faceless taunters and trolls of the Internet who say they could write better songs than Barnett with their alphabet soup (“but you didn’t,” she reminds them). Her dry delivery is used perfectly to bounce between faux-pity for the sad boys, who “must be lonely/being angry/feeling over-looked,” to her own desire to “walk through the park in the dark” without arming herself with key-knuckles. Her inclusion of Margaret Atwood’s line that “men are scared women will laugh at them, women are scared that men will kill them” is perfect for her vocal style, as her natural ability to make everything sound like a dark joke fits with this Atwood-ism that is already structured like a distortion of a joke. The combination of Barnett and Atwood’s words reads as a frustrated, pitiless “piss off” to the trolls: Oh, you’re sad because people don’t like you and a woman you don’t like is more successful than you? Well, I’m sad because I feel unsafe in my own skin. Boo hoo. It’s a very cathartic song, one which—gee, for some reason—frequently finds itself bouncing around my head.
That song is followed, almost like a quick chaser, by “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch,” which as the shortest song on the album at less than two minutes is a pure piece of Barnett’s punk-rock soul. It’s full of screeching guitars and distorted vocals, with extra-assured vocal delivery and no patience for fools. It gets in, gets out and leaves you with a tiny dose of rock-adrenaline.
After the strength of the middle of the album, the last few tracks feel a little more like “traditional” Courtney Barnett. All the qualities you want are there—electrifying guitars, those vocals, and sharp lyrics—but the songs don’t particularly stand out as songs to remember outside of when you’re listening to the album or the Barnett discography. “Help Your Self” features more carefully-placed bursts of squealing guitar, with an ambling beat that is almost cute, but earworm-y nonetheless.
The final two tracks, “Walkin’ On Eggshells” and “Sunday Roast” are both a bit muted, although they have a nice message—tying up the themes of the album—to say what you want, let out your feelings, even if they’re anxiety-ridden, and let yourself be helped. Compared to the electric energy of the first 8 tracks, however, it sends you away from the album (on a fadeout!) with a sadder, slower mood than what you had been experiencing for most of the album.
Tell Me How You Really Feel is a solid entry into Barnett’s career. She delivers what she does best: the droll lyrics, screeching guitars and a bold perspective, but a few quiet or forgettable moments even on this relatively short album let the energy flag for sometimes too many minutes at a time.