With Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett having practically blown the roof off a recent Whelan’s show with a barrage of grungy riffs , it’d be reasonable to expect an similar garage rock intensity present on her debut album ‘Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit’.
That absolute mouthful of a title is more than just wordplay however, it’s also a statement of intent. Barnett has already showcased her multifaceted songwriting abilities, by seguing effortlessly form pulse-pounding yet intelligent rock anthems, to the melancholy and introspective mood tunes.
‘Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit’ is very much the latter, in many cases sounding like a literal embodiment of the title, as if we’ve suddenly come upon Barnett lying awake and strumming absently on a guitar, forming fragmentary lyrics out of her sleepless stream of consciousness. “I lay awake at four/ staring at the wall/ counting all the cracks/ backward in my best French,” sings Barnett on An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York), demonstrating her gift for crafting elegant lyrical compositions that slice straight though the cliches and dive into raw, emotional resonance.
Little innocuous moments like this are bestowed with a sudden flash of meaning, as if just sitting still and staring at the walls really is all we need to achieve some kind of enlightenment. Or maybe not. Throughout the album Barnett playfully refuses to find any kind of answer, and her lyrics continually find themselves wallowing in a wry, self-deprecating humour. “Tell when you’re getting bored and I’ll leave,” Barnett sings on Debbie Downer.
The album continually sinks into a low-fi, downbeat moodiness, with the dreaming, free-flowing melodies matching the introspective lyrical content. But the variation within this admittedly fairly limited template is impressive. Barnett gets to embrace her blues influences when she break out the steel guitar and slide for Small Poppies, while Depreston fuses an airy pop melody with a bleak, colourless view of suburbia. The album continuously repeats familiar patterns, embracing a neat unity, but somehow at the same time continues to find ways to be inventive within these restrictions.
It might get a little old were it not for Barnett’s astounding gift for constructing lyrics. The album revels in both striking images (roadkill gets describes as “a possum Jackson Pollack… painted on the tar” on Dead Fox) and her ability to sum up a nebulous and inexplicable emotional states in so few words (“We either think that we’re invincible /or that we are invisible/ realistically we’re somewhere in between,” concludes the nebulously gloomy Kim’s Caravan).
Perhaps the one concession away from this mood is the inclusion of full blown rock anthem Pedestrian at Best, which combines mega-catchy riffs with a torrential drum beat to construct a whirlwind of distortion-fuelled noise to warp the wry lyrical deluge around. It’s a welcome blast of life before the album sinks into a slower, more restrained and thoughtful mood for the reminder.
Compared with her previous release, ‘The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas’ there’s far much more unity between tracks evident on ‘Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit’ (which, we suppose, must be the difference between a double EP and an album proper). True, there’s less variation on the display on this album, and there’s a little less for Barnett’s backing band to do, but it all feels very deliberate.
All these songs feel sit comfortably together, and by meditating on repeated themes (loneliness and isolation in a highly connected modern word being chief among them), manage to add up to something more complete and more evocative than the sum of their parts.