Courtney Barnett: Modernism and Distortion


It’s hard not to notice the assembly line of good music that has been stretching across the globe from Australia straight into the U.S. of A. From AC/DC to The Vines, and more recently Tame Impala and The Preatures, it’s been a steady import of Aussies since the 70s. The most recent act from down under demanding notice, Courtney Barnett, is already selling out American venues within minutes.

She created indie label Milk! Records in Melbourne to release her music and has been making records solo since 2012, after leaving both Rapid Transit and Immigrant Union (created by Dandy Warhols’ Brent DeBoer and  Bob Harrow). She’s dropped three EPs already and her debut full-length, Sometimes I Sit And Think And Sometimes I Just Sit is due out March 23, 2015.

Her self-deprecating, yet empowered poetry often comments on doubt, expectations and strange wisdom. Squeals from her guitar add sarcasm to the dry wit of her lyrics, creating the perspective and storytelling of a Dylan track, but with the stoned, laid-back quality of a Kurt Vile song. Her weighted words are balanced by distortion, Foxygen-inspired grooves and Aussie-twanged vocals, all with an authentic quality.

The most popular track to date, “History Eraser,” is possibly her most meta piece of modernism (she even calls out Ezra Pound by name). It’s a stream of consciousness ode to perception of reality. Altered states blend together – from being drunk to being to being asleep to being in love and back again. There’s a sense of adventure due to her ability to bend and shape her reality, as if navigating a lucid dream, as she repeats the chorus, “In my brain I rearrange the letters on the page to spell your name.”

Effortless, automatic creativity, a major theme, shows up much louder in conjunction with the visual of the official video (see below). Barnett is riding her bike down the street and without proof of organization or planning, she’s joined by friends and winds up in a race, bedazzled with sequins and cheered on by a crowed. The ordinary becomes extraordinary before the video is half up. It’s easy: just add fiction to reality. It’s just like her reference to “triffids” in the last verse – she overgrows the metaphor on purpose. Why? Because like a triffid, only the blind or weak are harmed by it.

Barnett’s fan-favorite, most watched video is for “Avant Gardener.” It takes place in the midst of heat wave and an asthma attack. Here, she’s the victim (triffids would have a damn field day with her in this state). “I’m having troubling breathing in” she repeats and repeats. The scene is dripping in high society bullshit and polo shirts – you’d swear they were inspired by Greenwich, CT-based Yale graduates. Anxiety mixed with apathy and general laziness show up every time something is about to get done (mainly the gardening).

However, it could really be applied to anybody in a capitalist society with any issues with focus on their goal. The writing shows the reality of what happens when you declare something and it comes true in your own prophesy. If you don’t take it seriously, it’s a joke – which is seen as a positive outlook. If we have to play along, get judged and follow rules we didn’t create, why not just have fun with it. What remains true is that you’ll get the results you put the effort in for – no more, no less. Radical change takes radical action.

Most recent track and video, “Pedestrian at Best,” is Barnett’s deepest dig at societal tends. With princess of deadpan delivery, she cuts with the lyrics with a storyline of last year’s clown of the year being old news at the local amusement park. Her jokes aren’t funny anymore, nobody cares about her, she gets taken advantage of and ends up next to another sad clown on a merry-go-round – one who happened to be “clown of the year” before she was.

It’s clearly a direct jab at our culture’s ADD-like qualities regarding entertainment. We don’t create legacies so much as we celebrate flavors of the month,  simultaneously snickering while tearing down last year’s idols from their lofty perches with every cynical tweet. Knowing this, Barnett shouts the chorus, “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you / Tell me I’m exceptional I promise to exploit you / Give me all your money and I’ll make some origami, honey / I think you’re a joke but I don’t find you very funny.” Basically, if you really love a piece of art, don’t go around comparing it everything else. Just like it.

Personally, I’m a big fan of the song “Pickles from the Jar” for it’s simplicity. It’s a stripped down “me versus you” formula that shows the comedy in our culture’s obsession with drawing lines between people. We’re all so busy trying to be unique (or should I say “better”) that we fail to see our mutual traits and faults. She nails the absurdity in this track.

Speaking of opportunities not to miss, you should probably get tickets to Barnett’s summer tour. They’re selling out quick, since her live shows are known for their raw energy and inspiration. See for yourself by checking out her KEXP full set performance. Then, go here to see where she’s playing closest to you. And if you’re going to her May 19th show in NYC, I’ll see you there.

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