The praise that Australian songwriter Courtney Barnett received for her early EPs—repackaged for American release after resoundingly successful 2013 CMJ performances —tended to settle on her unique portrayals of everyday life. What’s become clear on Barnett’s proper debut album is how her ability to convey those mundane moments, magnifying and stretching them into dense micro-narratives, is just the outer shell of her songwriting skill. Building on the best tendencies of her earlier songs, Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit finds Barnett deftly connecting the foreground to the background, the surface to the undercurrent.
Just as her breakthrough song “Avant Gardener” used the story of an asthma attack on a hot afternoon to raise questions about domesticity, career decisions, fate, mortality, and independence, Barnett’s 11 songs on Sometimes are written as springboards, always pointing her deceptively simple observations toward bigger themes. On “Depreston,” the record’s second single, Barnett opens by singing about how she can save $23 a week by making coffee at home instead buying her daily latte. The song moves into talking about house hunting, with startlingly specific real estate terms and details and soon the laid-back but wistful Laurel Canyon melodies push the song well beyond its immediate focus. What comes through is the fear inherent in big decisions, how maturity and conformity conflict with desires and expectations.
The record’s first single, “Pedestrian At Best,” positions Barnett as a ball of nerves, lost in a self-critical mess of tangled thoughts that come out in a dense, half-rapped freight train of sharp wordplay, backed by fuzzed-out guitars that heighten the urgency in her vocals. It’s the guitar-heavy 1990s alternative sound—combined with Barnett’s half-talked vocal delivery—that regularly drew the “slacker” tag in initial reviews. But just as the term never really fit the musically ambitious albums of early Beck or Pavement, calling Barnett’s music slacker rock ignores the immediacy and power of her distinctive songwriting voice. Simultaneously plainspoken and wordy, Barnett seizes on the musicality of language, with a rhythmic complexity that’s the end result of painstakingly careful choices.
But perhaps as a reminder that this is rock ’n’ roll and not strictly poetry, Barnett drops a seven-minute jam in the middle of Sometimes. Starting with a lounge-like tempo, “Small Poppies” builds into a bluesy showcase for Barnett the guitarist, along with her band, Dan Luscombe on guitar, Bones Sloane on bass, and Dave Mudie on drums.
If there’s a general theme to Barnett’s songs, it’s about finding a place in the world, learning a bit about life from everything she encounters: the plain, the everyday, the too-weird, and the not-weird-enough. But it’s Barnett’s approach that’s so compelling, relentlessly unspooling verses, laden throughout with earworms. As great as The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas was at times, by its very nature that cobbled-together album wasn’t quite ready for prime time. Sometimes extends the fantastic first impression of songs like “Avant Gardener” and “History Eraser” into a far more memorable and cohesive proper debut for Barnett.