Melbourne's slacker queen toughens up on expansive full-length debut

“I was walking down Sunset Strip,” Courtney Barnett sings on “Kim’s Caravan”, the epic, noisy centrepiece of her debut album. A moment later, though, comes a wry clarification. “Philip Island, not Los Angeles…”

This reference to the tourist hotspot near Melbourne is a relief; a sign that, despite the weight of worldwide acclaim on her shoulders, Barnett is still very much in touch with the Australian suburbs that have inspired her exceptional songs.

The best tracks on her first two EPs, compiled as 2013’s The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas, were glorious confections of alternative guitar rock, lazy sprechgesang vocals and artful lyrics, at once funny and deeply poignant. “Avant Gardener” was the ‘hit’, a true tale of Barnett suffering anaphylactic shock while trying to clear her yard, set to a charmingly repetitive groove studded with spacey guitars.

There are no humorous songs about falling ill while gardening here – although we do get a humorous song about falling ill in the pool while trying to hold your breath to impress a fellow swimmer. The track in question, two-minute sugar-rush “Aqua Profunda!”, is punchier than most of Barnett’s previous work, setting a pattern for the majority of Sometimes…. The sprightly “Debbie Downer” could spring right from the early ’90s, organ and guitar seesawing over a baggy-ish beat, while “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party” and “Dead Fox” move away from The Double EP’s more laidback, slacker-esque grooves to jaunty, poppy textures that are more Britpop in nature.

Sometimes… is not all three-minute garage-pop, though; some songs plough a grungier furrow, with Barnett, toughened up by a year of performing live in a loud trio format, channeling Mudhoney on the stomping “Pedestrian At Best” and closing thrilling, Pavement-esque waltz “Small Poppies” with a storm of ragged soloing.

With this artist, the music is really only half the story, though. Australian songwriters such as The Go-Betweens, Darren Hanlon, You Am I and The Lucksmiths, to name just a handful, have long mined similar lyrical seams, telling stories laced with black humour and poignancy; and Barnett, surpassing the global notoriety of these, is easily their peer. Her narrative skills position many of the tracks here closer to short stories than songs; take opener “Elevator Operator”, apparently about a suicidal commuter drone, until a twist in the tale opens up the song’s horizons, literally – it turns out the guy’s just checking out the view from the roof of a building so he can pretend he’s “playing Sim City”.

At other moments, Barnett is increasingly impressionistic with her imagery, writing less about herself and more about the world as she sees it. On “Dead Fox”, she dreamily weaves together vignettes on organic fruit and vegetables, truckers’ dangerous driving and whether cars should be locked up in zoos instead of animals, until these disparate topics fold together with a beautiful sense of logic. “A possum Jackson Pollock painted on the tar,” is her most gloriously kaleidoscopic line.

The seven-minute-long “Kim’s Caravan” continues these ecologically driven themes over an atmospheric slow-build not dissimilar to Neil Young’s “Down By The River”. “The Great Barrier Reef, it ain’t so great anymore/It’s been raped beyond belief, the dredgers treat it like a whore…” Barnett murmurs, as an ominous bass riff is joined by echoed guitars on the edge of feedback. Highlights like this, and the caustic “Pedestrian At Best”, suggest that the possibility of her pursuing more extended and out-there ideas in the future is an exciting prospect.

With such engaging and well-loved songs as “Avant Gardener” and “History Eraser” in her back catalogue, Sometimes I Sit And Think And Sometimes I Just Sit could in theory have been a tough follow-up. And yet Courtney Barnett has managed to expand her lyrical preoccupations and musical interests outwards and upwards, while still retaining the magic of her past peaks. In such skilful hands as hers, it seems, even an album about touring the world and becoming rich might not be something to fear, after all.

Q&A

Courtney Barnett

How was the recording process for Sometimes…?

We didn’t do too many overdubs, we didn’t fuck around too much. I think it took 10 days, I didn’t really wanna spend too much longer than that. You find yourself getting a bit too fussy, a bit too serious about it.

Have you been very concerned with ecological matters recently?

I guess these kind of things always have been, but I think in the last year it’s just kind of amplified a bit. I guess a lot of the time I’ve been writing and in my downtime, it’s just been playing on my mind a bit more maybe than usual. “Kim’s Caravan” is just about the helplessness of those situations.

Did you consciously try not to write songs about touring the world?

I wrote these songs between the second EP and last April. It wasn’t so much that I was trying to avoid those things, though we’d played America and Europe, but it was just that our three-month tour hadn’t happened yet! A lot of the stuff I’ve written since then has probably been about those kind of places or people I’ve met when I’m travelling around. I write about what I do and see, so there’s no point trying to not talk about it.

INTERVIEW: TOM PINNOCK