Last October, about a week after Tom Petty died, I wrote a goofy article about who I would pick to be in a modern-day version of the Traveling Wilburys. I was depressed about losing another of my rock and roll heroes, and obsessing over this meaningless topic was a way of distracting myself. I weighed many different factors — I didn’t just want to pick five famous older rock dudes, but rather musicians that I felt would perfectly fit the role of each original member. Dave Grohl made sense for the George Harrison spot, Neil Young was a good sub for Roy Orbison, Fiona Apple was an unlikely but genius pick for Bob Dylan (in my view at least), and Josh Homme fit as the new Jeff Lynne.
The easiest choice for me was casting Courtney Barnett for the Tom Petty role. It’s true that Petty was a boomer from Florida who became a star in Los Angeles, and Barnett is an indie-famous millennial from Australia, but otherwise they have a lot in common. Musically, they both specialize in durable rock songs that sound good but unflashy upon first listen, and then amazing and sort of profound upon the 100th listen. They are unreliable narrators in their songs, but not the kind who exaggerate or self-aggrandize — Barnett and Petty are masters of understatement, delivering tales of loneliness and alienation with crooked grins and shrugged shoulders. You don’t notice the sad desperation of the character in Barnett’s “Avant Gardener,” or Petty’s “Free Fallin,'” until you’ve lived them with for a few years.
This slyness makes their music pliable, disregarding the battles lines drawn between punk, new wave, indie, and classic rock. You can imagine either one of them making the same kinds of songs in any decade between now and the dawn of rock and roll, and probably having the same level of success. “Everyone” likes the tuneful melancholy that Barnett and Petty specialize in, especially if there’s an open road or a backyard barbecue in the vicinity.
“Like Petty, Barnett exudes slacker charisma, a laidback ‘who gives a sh*t’ vibe that belies the craft of her songs,” I wrote. “You want to hang out with Courtney Barnett, just like you wanted to hang out with Tom Petty.”
Here’s another thing that Barnett and Petty share: They’re both to easy to take for granted. Things are a little different now that he’s gone, but during Petty’s lifetime, many of us just assumed that he would go on writing perfect rock songs forever. Barnett, who writes rock songs as well as anyone from her generation, has a similar unassuming quality, evidenced by her new album, Tell Me How You Really Feel.
The album is darker and angrier than her knockout 2015 full-length debut Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, which garnered her a Best New Artist Grammy nomination. (She lost to Meghan Trainor — how’s that for being underappreciated?) A few songs, like the Margaret Atwood-quoting “Nameless, Faceless,” have been framed as reactions to the #MeToo movement. But, honestly, there is no real narrative to this record. It’s “just” another collection of very good Courtney Barnett songs, knocked out with a graceful proficiency that belies how difficult it must be to write with this much clarity, delicacy, and sensitivity to the low-key rhythms of everyday life.
On Sometimes I Sit and Think, Barnett was praised for the wit and specificity with which she wrote about the humdrum existence of a 20-something-year-old woman living in Melbourne. The album’s greatest song, “Depreston,” is about house shopping with your partner that’s also (if you choose to read this into it) about yuppies gentrifying poor neighborhoods. But it also just works as a snapshot of a couple looking at real estate, with Barnett’s lonely guitar lines and the gentle backing of her excellent band making it feel like a distant, half-remembered memory.
Barnett’s new record is more in the style of another track from her debut, “An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless In New York),” a “life on the road” song about the night after Barnett’s first gig in America. Tell Me How You Really Feel picks up the story a few years later, after Barnett has become a theater headliner and fixture at the world’s biggest music festivals. Many of the songs feel less settled and domesticated than the tunes on Sometimes I Sit — Barnett is still writing what she knows, but her frame of reference has shifted to tour buses and backstage dressing rooms, the kinds of places where ennui caused by perpetual dislocation festers.
“Friends treat you like a stranger and / Strangers treat you like their best friend, oh well,” Barnett sighs while passing through another town in “City Looks Pretty,” whipping wild psychedelic guitar riffs over a relentless motorik beat. In “Charity,” the album’s bounciest pop melody belies Barnett’s weary texts home from the road: “You must be having so much fun / Everything’s amazing / So subservient I make myself sick / Are you listening?” In the flinty “Help Your Self,” Barnett offers up her own serenity prayer: “You got a lot on your mind / You know that half the time / It’s only half as true / Don’t let it swallow you.”
Even the album’s first single, “Nameless, Faceless,” is colored by Barnett’s mixed feelings about fame. The chorus stakes out a hardline on misogyny — “Women are scared that men will kill them,” she sings, referencing Atwood — but the verses describe a bad encounter with a “lonely” and “angry” online fan who taunts, “I could eat a bowl of alphabet soup / And spit out better words than you.” It’s another example of the daily minutia that Barnett specializes in, but the sourness is an unwelcome departure. Barnett isn’t able to harness her annoyance over this anonymous guy’s rudeness into something richer or funnier.
Tell Me How You Really Feel also exhibits the upside of constant touring, evidenced in the muscular playing of Barnett and her band, which dig into the album’s mostly mid-tempo numbers with loads of squalling, heavy riffing, and thoroughly ragged glory. But it’s somewhat dispiriting that Barnett’s weariness has subsumed much of her humor. As well-written as her songs are, Barnett has lost some of her lightness, though hopefully not for good. Instead of sounding deadpan, she just seems a little tired. The result is less Damn The Torpedoes, and more Hard Promises. Still an album you want to play hundreds of times, though maybe on headphones instead of the car stereo.
Tell Me How You Really Feel is out 5/18 on Mom + Pop. Buy it here.