"Humble but hungry, need valildation" - Help Your Self, Courtney Barnett.
'Humble but hungry' might be a great way to describe Courtney Barnett's reflective lyrics and gentle rise from the back rooms of pubs to headlining the Camden Roundhouse and, later this year, Brixton Academy and supporting Nick Cave over the weekend at the All Points East festival in Victoria Park but does she need validation?
It's hard to tell if she needs it but she's certainly getting it as a room full of fans lift their skinny fists like antennas to heaven, scream along with the choruses, shout requests, and hang on her every single word. She's an unassuming looking woman, in her black jeans and t-shirt she could easily be a member of her own audience, but she has a very large talent. If you were to triangulate a point between Nirvana's grunge pop aesthetics, Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders' sing-talk vocal stylings, and the arch jangle pop of her compatriots The Go-Betweens you'd probably get somewhere close to what it is that Courtney does.
She's hardly reinventing the wheel. There's no nod to the microtonal scales of Harry Partch, no hat tips to the avant-garde Swedish metal of Meshuggah, and it's probably safe to say that The Aphex Twin's 'Jynweythek Ylow' is not a major influence on her work. But within the relatively constrained confines of indie pop and rock she's managed to both carve out a niche for herself and at the same time give her music plenty of space to breathe, reflect, and truly explore the emotions of being a woman, a songwriter, and a person.
The fact she does it with such good grace only warms you to her further. Last night she took the brave move of starting the set by running through her new album, 'Tell Me How You Really Feel', in its entirety. Even in correct track order. With the pauses and everything, probably.
It's an album that, much like 2015's 'Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit', dwells on themes of heartbreak, envy, self-doubt, bullying, and carrying "the weight of the world upon your bony shoulders". Opener Hopefulessness fills up the lofty former tramshed with washes of feedback and gentle strumming before 'City Looks Pretty' reminds you that this a rock gig. 'City Looks Pretty' was my pre-gig earworm and its tale of leaving the house after a period of reclusive behaviour could be read both actually or metaphorically. It could be about mental illness, love, or the simple pleasure of getting a bit of fresh air. It was certainly the song I thought about as I sat on the side of Primrose Hill before the gig.
The buzz saw guitars of 'Charity' give way to the seventies glam stylings of 'Need a Little Time'. 'Nameless Faceless' quotes Margaret Atwood and tells the story of a Internet troll who took time out from his busy schedule to tell Courtney that he "could eat a bowl of alphabet soup and spit out better words" than her before, predictably enough, failing to follow through on his threat.
These are strange times we're living in and navigating them seems to be causing untold psychological damage to some of us. In 'Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Self-Confidence' (and how's that for a great lost Nirvana song title) Barnett tells how "desperation stinks" and "indecision rots" over a riff that the power-pop bands of the late seventies would be proud of before conceding "I don't know, I don't know anything".
'Walkin' on Eggshells' has an air so resigned you could almost weep at its opening line, "Before we get started I'll clean this up, no use drinking from a leaking cup", and its melancholy tone doesn't lift for one moment. Guitars that sound like violins dance round lines about throwing it all away and not being able to speak your truth for fear of hurting someone you care about's feelings.
The album IS the set but Courtney Barnett's not The Wedding Present (who once famously announced from the stage 'We're The Wedding Present and this is 'Seamonsters' before playing all 47 minutes of their 1991 LP and pissing off, presumably in a van to Leeds) so she's back on for two encores, the first longer than some band's entire sets.
Tracks like 'Elevator Operator', 'History Eraser', and, best of all, 'Pedestrian at Best;' fly past in a very enjoyable blur as guitars and long black hair swirls around the stage but they're broken up with ballads like 'Anonymous Club' about cooking for friends and lovers, sitting in the dark, and staying up drinking wine into the small hours and the jaunty sounding yet mournfully written 'Don't Apply Compression Gently' in which our heroine makes a bittersweet, but not bitter, claim to be better off unhappy than with someone who's bad for her. This seems to me to be one of the best tricks she pulls off. Uptempo tunes masking sad, almost navel gazing, content. It's a trick she pulls off time and time again and it's one that doesn't tire on repetition.
'Avant Gardener', the song that introduced me to her music, still sounds great. A story about a mundane Monday gardening in the sunshine that goes awry after an emphysema attack. 'Depreston' is utterly gorgeous. It uses her familiar narrative device of starting out being about something seemingly innocent (visiting the Melbourne suburb of Preston and finding it a bit rough) before warming to its themes of loss and the inability to ever really know somebody else.
Possibly best of all is 'An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York)', whipcrack tight guitars delineate a tale of laying awake at 4am, staring at the ceiling, the oily residue of the kitchen, and the oily residue of the heart. When Courtney sings "Wondering what you're doing, what you're listening to, which quarter of the moon you're viewing from your bedroom" I think of all the lonely hearts in London (and beyond) and I think that everyone in the room has probably shared the same emotion at some point in their lives and it's then that I realise what Courtney Barnett does best. She brings people together. United in their uncertainties and anxieties. If those uncertainties and anxieties can never be truly fully resolved then the best things we have to help us manouevre our way through them is music. Music and each other. I bang the wall to the closing line "I'm thinking of you too" as Courtney sings it more than ten times at the end of the song.
Thanks to Valia for suggesting this gig and coming with me and thanks too to Pam and Kathy for meeting up with us there. It made a very good evening a great one.
"Keep on keepin' on, you know you're not alone, and I know all your stories but I'll listen to them again". - Sunday Roast, Courtney Barnett.