Published Jun 13, 2018"Put me on a pedestal and I'll only disappoint you," Australian musician Courtney Barnett warned on her highly acclaimed 2015 debut, Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit. It's a declaration that speaks to the expectations weighing on her leading up to the release of sophomore record, Tell Me How You Really Feel.
"I'm a perfectionist and think that nothing's ever good enough for me, so a lot of that pressure comes from myself, more so than that external thing," she says on the phone from her hometown of Melbourne. "But I think it's only human to work off those fears."
Fear may have been a motivating factor in both the process and content of the new songs, but the record expresses much more.
It opens with "Hopefulessness," which Barnett admits starts things off on a "wildly pessimistic" note, dark and droning and far less melodic than fans might expect. "That song is the struggle and the balance between feeling hopeless and trying to be hopeful, and the seesaw of the whole operation," she says.
Tracks like "Nameless, Faceless" and "I'm Not Your Mother, I'm Not Your Bitch," meanwhile, find Barnett angrier than ever, both vocally and on guitar. The former has her musing on the lack of safety the singer, her friends and women everywhere constantly carry with them — "that slight fear our entire life" — while the latter hears her ditching politeness in order to stand up for herself.
"I was studying the situation and trying to understand the psychology behind the attitudes and behaviours and hatred and where it comes from and why it exists," she says. "There's not an answer, but it was just me dwelling on it."
Like a rollercoaster of human emotion, Barnett eventually shifts from outward assertion to anxious introspection on "Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence" — a song she describes as "an answer to the album title, in a way."
"It's a natural state I've held with me since before I can remember, like since before I was a teenager, since I was a kid," she says. "It's always been hiding there and it has come out at different points in my life. It doesn't matter what I'm doing or what situation I find myself in; it's a lot more psychological than the external situation would suggest or present."
It reveals itself in Barnett's clever turns of phrase, though, as she injects jarring juxtapositions into her lyrics, toeing the line between darkness and humour — a motif that repeats itself with her blend of bubblegum pop hooks and screaming guitars.
"Sometimes it's a bit of a defense mechanism, that sarcastic cover-up," she admits. "But a lot of the time it's my humour trying to find the lighter side in things that obviously are not light topics. I've always been like that, I don't know why I have that aversion to earnestness."
By the end, Barnett's taken listeners on a surprising, gamut-running emotional trek — indicating that compartmentalizing and pinpointing particular feelings might not be as easy as the LP's title implies.
"There's a lot about communication, self-reflection and a lot of anger and sadness and — god, I don't know, just all those emotions," she concludes. "All the human emotions seem to be in there somehow."