Courtney Barnett Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

[Mom + Pop; 2015]

Styles: wordy indie rock, comfort
Others: The Triffids?

Virginia Woolf wrote a story called “The Mark on The Wall,” a perfectly lonely, modernist riff on the mind’s tendency to circle, sway, collapse, and return. The mark, at the story’s end, after much thought and metathought, is identified as a small snail, unmoving, hugging the wall. On “An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in NY),” Australian indie-rock troubadour Courtney Barnett studies the cracks in an apartment’s wall, reads them as Palmistry lines, soon gives up, and lets her mind wander to the ceiling’s color (Is it off-white? Is it cream?). The cracks are just cracks, eventually, and the ceiling’s color… well, whatever. We all do this — swim in and out of conjecture, criticism and nonsensical pattern-seeking.

Courtney Barnett’s songs are stories of the everyday, of the emotional or spiritual truths always hidden (or plain) therein. Barnett’s The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, despite being composed of two separately envisioned halves (hence the title), was an impressive, memorable initial statement, and Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, her debut full-length proper, offers more of the same.

More of the same. Thank god, because I wouldn’t have changed a thing. Barnett’s is a music one can turn to whenever: it’s comfortable, familiar, fits many sizes and moods. Falling asleep to her songs will always bring calm dreams (though her lyrics often deal with anxieties); driving or walking are given dry, sly purpose; “just sitting” becomes “sitting and thinking.” Small profundities slip into each song, sometimes only making themselves apparent after the song is long over. She’s tricky, coy, funny, like an existentialist Broad City character.

Although there are no Triffids references on this new album (see The Double EP’s “History Eraser,” a moment that endeared Barnett forever to this Triffids fan), no lack of wit is to be found here. “Elevator Operator,” notably both the album’s opening track and the only song not sung from the first person, is an insistent, catchy parodic recontextualization of (I’m not kidding!) Third Eye Blind’s “Jumper.” Elsewhere, on “Dead Fox,” Barnett details the terror and essential strangeness of automobile travel in particular, and the ever-diverging modern world in general (“a friend told me they stick nicotine in the apples”), structuring her associations, like a blur of billboards passing by quickly, around a simple chorus appropriated from a passing eighteen-wheeler: “If you can’t see me, I can’t see you.”

Any song on this album could function as a funny little short story well enough, but Barnett’s band, her guitar playing, her impeccable sense for melody and consistency give her stories life beyond their quirks, beyond her strength as a chronicler of the exhausting contemporary situation, expanding them into emotional worlds unto themselves. On “Kim’s Caravan,” Barnett returns to meditating on the decaying, wise architecture around her, and finds meanings and omens: “Water marks on the ceiling/ I can see Jesus and he’s frowning at me.” Always a mark on a wall if you look; nothing’s perfect.

Links: Courtney Barnett - Mom + Pop

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