Courtney Barnett's Everyday Observations Took on New Meanings in Toronto

Massey Hall, September 14

Photo: Lindsay Duncan

BY Tom BeedhamPublished Sep 15, 2022

Warming up the room and establishing the material conditions of the occasion, Courtney Barnett opened her Massey Hall performance with the lead singles from her first three albums. Stretching the absurd to its limits with rambling wordplay and fingerpicked distortion love-ins, Barnett trades in making public the wry observations of private experiences. Things Take Time, Take Time's "Rae Street" set things in motion with a drum machine before Barnett and co. (she was joined by backing band regulars Bones Sloane and Dave Mudie) proceeded into the routine gestures of thanks made to essential workers that were so common in the pandemic's early days. 

Following that up with "Avant Gardener" and its anxious respiratory drama, Barnett slyly underlined the personal risk she assumes by participating in the average, unregulated biosphere, and suddenly a fan favourite took on new meaning.

Barnett casually excelled at making the mundane feel surreal well before the pandemic; this juxtaposition inverts that formula. Adding another layer of profundity to grapple with, Barnett quietly chastised a concert-going public that has widely shrugged off responsibility for the conditions that entertainers must move through on tour, moaning at vaccination requests and disregarding mask requests entirely. The subtle gesture felt doubly pointed at Massey Hall, where Barnett should have been back in February before a positive COVID diagnosis pulled her and the band off the road.

Barnett's setlist was full of juxtapositions like this, older hits cast in new light by the raised stakes of contemporary living and complementing the newer songs written in pandemic isolation. Moments before launching into Tell Me How You Really Feel single "City Looks Pretty" — with its birds-eye perspective on urban alienation — Barnett related the universal experience of longing for the outside world from a sun-filled windowsill with "Here's the Thing." Working from the hands-off garden-tending metaphors of "Small Poppies," Barnett continued into the stop-and-smell-the-roses messaging of "Turning Green."

The new songs were the cause of the night and certainly welcome, but putting older ones in service of them had mixed effect — namely, an uneven pacing that found Barnett regularly switching down from abrasive energies to more staid vibes. 

Fan favourite "Depreston" was a welcome exception. The song's sombre depiction of suburban house hunting — and the ludicrous suggestion that anyone might have a disposable half-million laying around for a teardown — has only become more bruising within the housing bubble. The crowd took to it dearly, singing along to the gentle chorus in arguably the show's sweetest moment.

But when the band capped the set with "Nobody Really Cares If You Don't Go to the Party" and "Write a List of Things to Look Forward To" — offering complementary takes on FOMO and YOLO — things felt unresolved, with Barnett approaching the edge of the stage just before the final song cut to its abrupt close. That unresolved anticipatory energy is written into the song itself, so it feels like a particularly intentional tease before the encore (Barnett came back out for solo renditions of her Kurt Vile collab "Let It Go" and "Oh the Night," before the band returned for "Sunday Roast" and "Before You Gotta Go"). Unfortunately, it also perfectly captured the halting energy that had been felt throughout the night.

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