Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
“Elevator Operator”, the first track on Melbourne slacker-rock almost-icon Courtney Barnett’s new album, tells the story of a guy who decides to shirk off work and the woman who thinks that he’s planning on killing himself. It’s a quirky little tale studded with the most shockingly mundane details: references to a specific tram line, an exact account of our protagonist Oliver Paul’s breakfast, specific buildings, pyramids of Coke cans, and a painting of the woman in the elevator so complete that you can smell the cloying, expensive perfume coming off of her. The second verse on “An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York)” features the lines “I lay awake at three, staring at the ceiling / It’s a kind of off-white, maybe it’s a cream / There’s oily residue dripping from the kitchen / It’s art-deco necromantic chic, all the dinner plates are kitsch with / Irish wolf hounds, French baguettes wrapped loose around their necks”. “Kim’s Caravan” finds her “walking down Sunset Strip, Phillip Island, not Los Angeles / Got me some hot chips and a cold drink / Took a sandy seat on the shore / There’s a paper on the ground, makes my headache quite profound”.
I went to see post-modern political philosopher Jacques Ranciere speak in Toronto a couple of years ago, for a lecture entitled “The Politics of Fiction”. He described the process of writing as (and I’m paraphrasing here) taking the endless mundanity of regular life and forcing it into the tyranny of the plot. To bring it back to his political works (Disagreement et al.), there exists a vast, unnamed field we can think of as the anonymous textures of everyday life. The writer’s job is to take those anonymous textures and separate them into an arbitrary pen, which is to say that the writer must create a narrative out of these anonymous textures such that they become a story lifted out of the endless day-to-day. It’s important because one of the things that well-meaning but clueless writers try to teach new, nervous writers is that adjectives are dubious at best, and descriptions should be avoided in favour of serving the almighty plot.
Courtney Barnett never listened to the latter group; hers is a much more “political” fiction, as it were. She is an absolute master of the mundane, of the anonymous textures of everyday life. Her lyrics are clear-eyed, her delivery deadpan. This is a woman who can find the sadness and frustration in litter, in trying to impress someone and almost drowning, in trying to figure out whether or not to mow the lawn. She approaches Dylan in her point-of-fact delivery, but her poetry is less surrealist than his ever was. Musically it’s college indie rock with a touch of drink-numbed country, wavering between the red-herring crunch of “Pedestrian At Best” and the lonesome sigh of “Depreston” and “Boxing Day Blues”. There’s nothing particularly original about the arrangements on Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, but then again there was nothing particularly original about the arrangements on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan – it’s all in the delivery, and the delivery is where Courtney Barnett excels. She can take an utterly banal sentence like “If you’ve got a spare half a million, you can knock it down and start rebuilding” and have it stand in for all of the bald-faced depression of trying to find a place to live in a troubled, crime-riddled suburb. It’s what got her first couple of EPs recognized, and it informs her debut with a wisdom completely beyond her years. The devil is in the details, as they say, but for Courtney Barnett it’s something much more transcendent.
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