Richie Feathers, Managing Editor
“Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you,” Courtney Barnett thunders on her brilliant new single, “Pedestrian At Best.” “Tell me I’m exceptional and I promise to exploit you.”
To be fair, the Australian singer-songwriter’s not giving herself much credit.
“Pedestrian At Best” is the first taste of Barnett’s upcoming debut album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, out March 23 on her own label, Milk! Records.
On the heels of last year’s re-release of earlier material, The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, the new single barks like a dirge for her own self-consciousness. Drenched in feedback and chunky electric guitar, “Pedestrian At Best” spotlights the witty, conversational lyricism and delivery that Rolling Stone has described as “some hybrid of Kimya Dawson and Kurt Cobain.”
“My songs follow me as a normal human with normal emotions,” Barnett explains. “So there are great highs and lows. They span everything in my life.”
Of course, most artists take inspiration from their day-to-day life, but few do it in as literal a sense as Barnett.
While growing up with Nirvana and Eminem firmly places Barnett as a 90s grunge kid, her flowing style also recalls the gritty observations of Lou Reed, whose 1972 song “Perfect Day” is a personal favorite.
Reed’s classic, laid back account of an atypical day’s events is easily heard in Barnett’s 2013 debut single, “Avant Gardener,” the hazy marvel about having a panic attack. The song introduced her ability to weave daily mundanity as a bored twenty-something into cheeky slabs of relatable alternative-rock.
“I sleep in late/Another day/Oh what a wonder/Oh what a waste,” she sang in a droll stream-of-consciousness. Later, she conversed with an elderly neighbor, referenced Pulp Fiction and admitted she was never very good at smoking bongs.
“Pedestrian At Best,” though, is a departure from “Avant Gardener,” sounding instead like Barnett’s been craving some Sex Pistols and the Ramones. It actually shares closer DNA with a different cut from A Sea of Split Peas: the acclaimed garage rocker “History Eraser,” where she recounts a long night of wild encounters.
Yet, the new single finds Barnett confronting her own unexpected fame.
“My internal monologue is saturated analog/It’s scratched and drifting/I’ve become attached to the idea it’s a shifting dream/Bittersweet philosophy/I’ve got no idea how I even got here,” she sputters frantically as if afraid to leave any thought unexpressed.
Perhaps this discontent with her status as a burgeoning star stems from her insistence that she is anything but; Barnett kept her job as a bartender in Melbourne after the first single was released, quitting only when touring began to heat up.
This reluctance to adopt any sort of pretension about success is embedded in the genuineness she lays bare in her music: “I must confess/I’ve made a mess/Of what should be a small success/But I digress/At least I’ve tried my very best/I guess.”
But despite the outward nature of much of her material, there’s another side of Barnett that peeks through–that of a quieter, more intimate songbird. She visits this in standout cuts like “Anonymous Club,” an aching ode to her own perfect day, as well as the recent stunner, “Depreston,” a sad, sarcastic tune about house hunting in a neighboring suburb. “If you’ve got a/Spare half a million/You could knock it down/And start rebuilding,” she repeats gently.
She may not have a half million to spare quite yet, but Barnett is on her way to building a unique name for herself. Driven by an honest attention to detail and the unshakable gravity of her voice, Barnett’s music is essential for this place and any place.