There’s been a heavy trend in music this decade. Singer-songwriters really like to write about the mundane. Whether that be the sad nostalgia of Kurt Vile waking on a pretty day or the glossary-like detail of Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek or Mac DeMarco’s sweet love of cheap cigarettes. Few artists can hit the nail on the head when it comes to turning the every day into something more. That makes Courtney Barnett a needle in a haystack. Her lyrics are stacked with wit, aided by her lackadaisical, deadpan delivery. She is a 21st century storyteller, sharing small details that in turn erupt into a much larger, more pertinent picture.
Courtney Barnett is very down-to-earth. The Aussie singer-songwriter’s lack of too much care makes her long-winded The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas stand out among a sea of otherwise boring, meaningless peas of alternative rock. She never pretends to walk wheels around you with her witty songwriting, though she very well could. Even her backing guitars have a lazy Sunday sort of vibe to them, highlighted in “History Eraser,” as they slog and struggle to coexist with Barnett’s rambling, cheeky delivery. The song begins, “I got drunk and fell asleep atop the sheets but luckily I left the heater on,” with Barnett stretching small syllables, giving her voice a disinterested, alt-punk attitude. Just a song later, on “David,” she bluntly proclaims “I don’t really like any of your friends, but it’s not that hard for me to pretend/Hard for me to pretend,” some of the few lyrics in a rhythmic 3-minute jam. Barnett relishes in those small moments where the music can speak for her. There’s no use in overwriting about everyday life when most hours of her day are spent in contemplative silence.
Barnett’s matter-of-fact delivery rings with sincerity. “Lance Jr.” begins with “I masturbated to the songs you wrote/Resuscitated all of my hopes/It felt wrong but it didn’t take too long/Much appreciated are your songs.” Humor this authentic is hard to come by in stand-up comics, let alone singer-songwriters. Barnett is uninterested in the messiness that metaphors drag along with them, instead opting to strike for the heart of the music and the feeling therein. “Lance Jr.” rings along with a strange, grungy, Nirvana-esque plodding, uncomfortable and unsure as the lyrics it begins with. But Barnett never falters. The epic “Are You Looking After Yourself” finds Barnett drawling and contemplating, coyly asking “Are you eating? You sound so thin,” taking on the role of an overbearing parent. She then recoils, singing “I don’t know what I was drinking, I should get a dog.” The free spirit Barnett exemplifies gives The Double EP a bright, sunny disposition. The small scope of these songs place Barnett in the minimal category of songwriters who are able to flip mundanity to profundity.
I’d be remiss to speak about this EP without mentioning it’s best song, “Avant Gardener.” This is an alternative song that works on so many layers. Beginning simply with drums, then dropping off into a hazy world of aimless guitar screeches and stoned rambling; Barnett describes the day: “I sleep in late/Another day/Oh what a wonder/Oh what a waste./It’s a Monday/It’s so mundane/What exciting things/Will happen today?” In her sleepy crooning, Barnett describes the mundane Monday she experiences, full of cutely small revelations, rhyming “I’m breathing but I’m wheezing/Feel like I’m emphysemin’/My throat feels like a funnel/Filled with weet bix and kerosene and—.” But there is profundity within these lines, a brash intelligence and wit Barnett tries so hard to undermine—or at least make you think she’s undermining. The chorus following the second verse rings out, “Anaphylactic and super hypocondriactic/Should’ve stayed in bed today/I much prefer the mundane./I take a hit from/An asthma puffer/I do it wrong/I was never good at smoking bongs/ I’m not that good at breathin’ in.”
For all her lazy ramblings and sunny disposition, Courtney Barnett deserves to do a little breathing in. The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas sees Barnett at her most immediate, with songs full of humor and aimlessness, uncaring and unflinching. Barnett has said of her songwriting “But, you know, those small moments, if you paint them properly, they can represent this beautiful moment, or whatever it was that made you stop and consider it for a second.” Courtney Barnett manages to capture those small moments where life meets circumstances, transforming a minuscule moments into something larger, and even yet, more personal.
Favorite tracks: “Avant Gardener,” “History Eraser,” “Lance Jr.,” “Are You Looking After Yourself”