Nobody wants to hear another grunge act. As a species we agree on very little, but we’re all certain that we’re sick of these Nirvana knock-offs with their dirty guitars and repetitive drums. It’s been done. There’s nothing original physically possible with the form so if anything like that comes along you leap violently away from it, as if the cat has brought in some decimated rat and has proceeded to try and drop it on your lap in search of praise. Violent emotions indeed, but when someone can overcome such prejudices you know you’ve got something special on your hands, and the music of Tasmanian-born Courtney Barnett is just that.
Her ‘A Sea of Split Peas’ is a twelve-track collection made up of two previously released EPs, and the growth evident between the music on the first half (comprising the more recently released EP) and the second shows an artist in the process of ascending a steep creative slope. The latter songs are more self-consciously outrageous, trying to take a very direct stance on certain issues and working in a slightly more conventional tone. The first six tracks are outright brilliant, and have that remarkable elusive variety that nearly every band using the standard rock line-up have simply failed to do over the past twenty years.
Track seven is the first song on the first EP, as good a place to start as any. It opens with the, shall we say, noteworthy opening line “I masturbated to the songs you wrote”. Shocking, right? Of course as uninhibitedly honest as that may be it isn’t shock value that Barnett is going for. She thrives on a kind of dry humour that injects the fairly generic melody of this track with a huge amount of personality, as that opening line leads into “Doesn’t mean I like you, man/It just helps me get to sleep/And it’s cheaper than Temazepam”.
This is followed by the new age slacker anthem Are You Looking After Yourself with the chorus “I don’t want no nine-to-five/Telling me that I’m alive/And man/You’re doin’ well”, which again is not as plain and dull as you’d initially think. Slackers of 2014 are not like slackers of 1989, which is why after some well intended nudging from the singer’s parents the song arrives at “I don’t know what/I was thinkin’/I should get a job”. It’s this kind of stoney-faced, self-effacing and unpretentious wit that drives Barnett’s music and makes it completely irresistable.
But these songs being the slightly older ones on the double EP, as good as they are, wouldn’t encourage you to put the thing on again and again. That comes in the first six tracks. Immediately on hearing opening song Out of the Woodwork you notice the quality production, but also that Barnett has landed on her own individual voice, which is droning and emotionless. You almost want to call it the voice of a generation because from experience it’s many’s the millenial who speaks exactly the way Courtney Barnett sings.
Taking mundane everyday life and turning it into something interesting and transcendent is what this music does best, and the future classic that is Avant Gardener does it better than any song in recent history. The song recounts a late Monday morning in which the singer tries to be pro-active but ends up suffering a panic attack and being taken to hospital. It’s an ironic masterpiece and definitely features the best use of the words “pseudoephedrine,” “anaphylactic” and “superhypocondriac” of any song ever written.
There’s a confidence to these first six songs that makes them each particularly brilliant, but perhaps none of the songs show this quiet self-confidence quite like Anonymous Club which is a nearly formless six minute recounting of a quiet night in with a lover. Its lyrical minimalism coupled with an almost Astral Weeks musical simplicity are the works of a true artist, and it’s a genuinely beautiful piece of music.
Of the double EP’s twelve tracks there is not one that’s bad, and of the first six there’s not one that isn’t great. As a listening experience the whole thing would probably benefit from more of an interspersing of old songs and newer ones, but Courtney Barnett has undoubtedly landed on a sound and a voice that is wildly appropriate to the times, but that also contains the kind of personality and context that means it will never go out of date. Also, the ability to sell us neo-grunge, which we never wanted in the first place, is only one of the creative miracles she’s pulled off with this collection of songs, so switch your prejudices off for a minute and treat yourself.