Courtney Barnett Stops Being Polite on 'Tell Me How You Really Feel'

Photo: Pooneh Ghana

BY Sarah MurphyPublished May 14, 2018

Courtney Barnett may have a pretty chill reputation, but her sophomore album is anything but easy-going. On Tell Me How You Really Feel, the Australian singer-songwriter does exactly what the title implies.
Immediately less upbeat and bubbly as its 2015 predecessor Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit and far less lackadaisical than her followup collaborative album with Kurt Vile, the new LP opens on an ominous note with "Hopefulessness," and by the time it gets to the biting lyrics, distorted vocals and crunchy guitars on the chorus of "Nameless, Faceless" we're into straight-up mad territory.
"It's just anger that's always there within me," Barnett tells Exclaim! on the phone from Melbourne. "It's maybe just been politely restrained or something."
True to the album's title, "Nameless, Faceless" doesn't mince words when describing the inherent dangers women face. In addition to capturing the all-too-familiar female fear of walking alone at night (keys ready to be used as brass knuckles), she also incorporates some of the actual petty vitriol she's received from online trolls in the past ("He said 'I could eat a bowl of alphabet soup / And spit out better words than you'").
"It's pretty direct and obvious," she says of the song. "It's one of those ongoing thoughts and conversations I always come across with friends — to have that slight fear our entire life. 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. There's not an answer, but it was just me dwelling on it."
That previously dormant anger rears its head again on "I'm Not Your Mother, I'm Not Your Bitch" — perhaps Barnett's loudest musical statement to date. Pounding percussion, clanging guitars and grungy bass blend together as she shouts: "I can only put up with so much shit."
That said, the record also features plenty of respite from rage, as demonstrated from the delightful guitar wizardry and bounce-along poppiness of "City Looks Pretty" to the introspective "Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Self Confidence" (complete with a call-and-answer reply to the album's title).
Closing cut "Sunday Roast," meanwhile, leaves listeners in a slightly better mood as the record ends. Barnett describes it as "a little bit melancholic," but also points out its "sense of love and warmth and optimism."
Reflecting on the album as a whole, Barnett admits that "all the human emotions seem to be in there somehow."
"Everything's interesting in its own way to write about," she adds. "You uncover some hidden thing you weren't expecting or didn't know was there, so it's all just looking for knowledge and more understanding. It's all hard, but it's all rewarding."
Tell Me How You Really Feel is out May 18 via Mom+Pop/Marathon Artists/Milk! Records. See Barnett's upcoming North American tour dates here.

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