On “Pedestrian At Best,” the lead single to her debut album Sometimes I Sit And Think And Sometimes I Just Sit, Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett snarls, “Give me all your money and I’ll make some origami, honey.” The song is in part about being a heavily-hyped new artist and all the ambivalence that dredges up in her, so the line contains more than a little sarcasm. Yet there’s something truthful in it about how Barnett, takes the mundane and ordinary within her songs, folds them up about a million different ways, and produces something revealing, not just about herself, but about human nature as a while.
It’s a skill that was evident to anyone who heard her breakthrough 2013 single “Avant Gardener,” which built an asthma attack into a black comedy of epic proportions. More of the same could be found on The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas, which collected the first two years’ worth of Barnett’s unique takes. On this first full-length, Barnett’s various slices of life are unified by a signature, striking outlook, full of world-weariness well beyond her age, self-deprecation despite her impressive talents, and a willingness to look beyond the face value of everything from lawn care to lovers.
On “Aqua Profunda!”, local swimming lanes are the setting for the narrator’s hapless attempt at seduction. “Depreston” focuses on a couple’s hunt for real estate. And “Elevator Operator” is, on its surface, a character sketch of a disaffected kid hustling to work on a busy morning. Yet from these humble beginnings, Barnett’s stream of consciousness, coupled with her knack for wordplay both witty and cutting, wends its way into profound territory.
Barnett also manages the neat trick of spouting winning one-liners along the way to a fully-formed bigger picture in each song. She knows that a simple, catchy refrain like “I’m thinking of you too” from “An Illustration Of Loneliness (Sleepless In NY)” helps ground observations like the one characterizing her room as “art-deco necromantic chic.” “Small Poppies” may start out as a meditation on grass growing, but it just sets the narrator up to muse on a toxic relationship and daydream about stabbing her frustrating boyfriend with a coat hanger.
Spiky sentiments like that are echoed in the music on the album. On “Elevator Operator” and “Dead Fox”, enough color bleeds into the stomping rhythms to make Barnett’s backing band sound like a reasonable facsimile of prime-era Attractions. The swagger on “An Illustration Of Loneliness” makes a good case that Chrissie Hynde was one of her faves growing up, while “Debbie Downer” packs a solid New Wave punch.
Barnett isn’t yet a great melodicist, preferring to flatline her way through her some of her songs, but she can get away with a lot of that because she’s such a savvy lyricist. As the album progresses, her tales take on an increasingly somber tone, peaking with “Kim’s Caravan,” a moody rambler that marries environmental concerns with questions about identity. “I am just a reflection of what you really wanna see,” she sings on that track, her voice allowing for some sorrow to cut through the deadpan. What Sometimes I Sit And Think And Sometimes I Just Sit reflects is that Courtney Barnett is a burgeoning talent whose future likely holds great improvement from this already-impressive starting point.