Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
Is it weird that I associate Aussie alt-rocker Courtney Barnett with Aussie comedian Hannah Gadsby? They don’t look much alike but I don’t think it’s a crazy comparison to make. Both possess the straight-talking, cigarettes-and-VB aura of Australiana. They both spent at least some of their formative years in Tasmania. Each has succeeded in traditionally blokey fields – Barnett in her oh-so-Aussie blend of pub-rock and country; Gadsby in the testosterone-thick arena of stand-up comedy – despite their decidedly un-blokey material: autobiographical, upfront about mental illness, invested in society, unapologetically gay.
Maybe it’s weird. Maybe it’s weird that I don’t really have any throughline for that comparison, but it’s also kind of fitting, because so much of Barnett’s music feels like its mainlining her stream of consciousness, a jumble of ideas cobbled together in a way that’s overly honest and sort-of-funny and self-conscious all at once. Introducing “Pedestrian at Best”, the first single from her debut album Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, on triple j, Barnett copped to writing the lyrics a half hour before recording the song. But that’s the whole appeal, right? Her breakthrough track “Avant Gardener” is definitely witty, but in that loud, half-assed, pub storytelling sort of way. Her personality shines through.
That’s true of most of Sometimes I Sit, which swings between good and great and okay songs in its forty-some minutes without ever sacrificing Barnett’s candour. On “Dead Fox” she turns the gripes of her partner Jen (Cloher, of The Endless Sea) about organic veges into a rant about road freight (the “Fox” of the title being the virulent introduced species that is Linfox). “Nobody Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party” springboards sharp, catchy rock – it’ll be the next single, if triple j has any say in the matter – into a rumination on what it’s like being an introvert dating an extrovert. The Shins-y “Depreston” wanders into a “Californian bungalow” in, you guessed it, Preston, sparking thoughts on gentrification, the history of a place, and real estate finance. It’s all a little bit personal, a little bit political.
It’s all a little depressing, too, though that’s pretty clearly intentional. Barnett sounds glum throughout, which I guess makes sense for an album that kicks off with a story about a suicide that wasn’t (“Elevator Operator”, which operates as a disappointingly bland first song). It works great on tracks like “Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in NY)”, which is about pretty much what you’d expect from the title, its lyrics perfectly aligning with languid riffs evoking the muddled blend of torpor and energy of anxious, overthought insomnia.
Barnett doesn’t linger in a depressive haze, mind you, resurfacing for the occasional burst of energy in the likes of “Aqua Profunda!” – which recalls The Grates – or the aforementioned “Pedestrian at Best”. Still, you can see why passers-by might exhort her to “turn that frown upside down and just be happy” (per “Debbie Downer”, which, despite the reference to SNL’s buzz-kill character, is actually a pretty bright song); not every style executed on the album – which ranges from sombre blues dirges to a pair of six-minute-plus rock epics – suits her resigned, pseudo-spoken-word approach to singing, which make the album feel somewhat homogenous despite its instrumental diversity.
Then again, given I began this review with an ill-considered, ill-formed digression about Hannah Gadsby, who am I to judge? Sometimes those loud pub stories hit the mark, and sometimes they don’t, and Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit hits the mark more often than not.