Tell Me How You Really Feel – Courtney Barnett [album review]

Commentary, Music

Courtney Barnett’s sophomore album Tell Me How You Really Feel is confessional rock record that retains the Australian singer-guitarist’s gift for wit and wordplay.

Opening track “Hopefulessness” starts off with a discordant drone, like a guitar being tuned, which slowly morphs into a sludgy, tentative riff. Barnett’s weary vocals follow, almost drowned in fuzz: here, the line “take your broken heart-turn it into art” sounds more like a half-hearted suggestion than a rallying cry.

The tempo picks up with the next track, but hints of lackadaisical darkness remain. “City Looks Pretty” is a wistful stream-of-conscious narration about being alone in public: “friends treat you like a stranger and / strangers treat you like their best friend.”

Its flip side is “Nameless Faceless,” in which Barnett laments being afraid to walk alone at night; the song’s refrain “I wanna walk through the park in the dark” is book-ended by that old Margaret Atwood observation: “Men are scared that women will laugh at them…women are scared that men will kill them.”

This Kim Deal-assisted track is one of the most explicitly feminist songs on the album, both a condemnation of misogyny and a relatable exploration of the fears we internalize (“I hold my keys between my fingers,” she yowls during the bridge).

What’s brilliant about Barnett’s songwriting is how she articulates thoughts and emotions with such clarity that they feel universal, without ever sounding generic. Who hasn’t used a solo walk through the city as a loneliness cure? What girl hasn’t been told to carry her keys between her knuckles when walking alone? This record omits the surreal storytelling of her debut, but feels no less vivid for it. 

With distorted guitars and unpolished vocals, Tell Me How You Really Feel is also grungier than its predecessor. (The punky “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch” sounds like an In Utero deep cut). That said, it’s also disarmingly earnest. One of the more joyous tracks here is literally called “Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence,” and features such revealing lyrical gems as “I never feel as stupid as when I’m around you.”

Moments of anger are tempered by frank honesty. “I’m Not Your Mother” is a bitter argument that concludes with the admission: “I get most self defensive when I think I’m wrong.” And in “Charity,” Barnett sneers at a friend for being disingenuous, before leveling: “You don’t have to pretend you’re not scared / Everyone else is just as terrified as you.”

Not that she professes to have the answers. On “Walking on Eggshells,” Barnett cops to being “sorta self-righteous,” singing, “Just sit back, do what you’re told.” Sometimes the answer is to stop fighting and admit that you don’t know everything.

The final track, “Sunday Roast,” is an olive branch, a gentle message of love and support set to a ragged, meandering riff that sounds like sunlight streaming through a decaying roof.

Title: Tell Me How You Really Feel

Artist: Courtney Barnett

Year: 2018

Tracklist:

  1. Hopefulessness
  2. City Looks Pretty
  3. Charity
  4. Need a Little Time
  5. Nameless, Faceless
  6. I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch
  7. Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence
  8. Help Your Self
  9. Walkin’ On Eggshells
  10. Sunday Roast

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