Courtney Barnett’s two singles from 2014, “Avant Gardener” and “History Eraser,” were both on my top 100 tracks of the year primarily for her clever, witty lyrics, which told complete stories with inventive wordplay and a willingness to break out of standard meters and rhyme schemes. Her first true full-length album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, more than delivers on the promise of those earlier songs, with better hooks and more upbeat rock sounds while maintaining the high standard of wordsmithing she’d already set for herself.
Led by two stomping tracks, “Elevator Operator” and lead single “Pedestrian at Best,” Sometimes I Sit… is a tour de force of finding humor in despair and setting it to a guitar-rich soundtrack; it harkens back to the halcyon days of the Smiths, where Johnny Marr could get you off the couch and Morrissey would send you to the therapist’s. The opener tells the story of a disaffected white-collar worker who has had enough of cubicle life and reveals that all he ever wanted was to be an elevator operator; the second track comes at you like a shouted-word (rather than spoken-) statement of purpose, with a chorus that candidly offers, “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you/Tell me I’m exceptional and I promise to exploit you.” Barnett has no use for the typical tropes of the female pop artist, and instead asserts herself in juxtaposition with statements of insecurity or even occasional self-loathing.
Barnett is too young to remember the ’80s but there are hints of that decade’s strain of British new wave artists who built their hooks around guitars rather than synths and employed wry irony that often went over listeners’ heads throughout the album. “Debbie Downer” sounds like the descendant of an Aztec Camera tune, shockingly upbeat for its title (where, indeed, she’s told by a somewhat older woman to quit frowning, only to inform her target, “Don’t stop listening, I’m not finished yet”). “Aqua Profunda!” revisits a common theme in Barnett’s lyrics, that of the embarrassing incident, this one where she’s swimming in a lap pool, notices the guy in the next lane, and tries to impress him, only to have the whole thing go awry. “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party” is true.
Barnett’s slower songs have always fallen short of the mark for me because she’s not a singer; she talk-sings, and her lyrics would largely work as spoken-word offerings anyway, but without solid music behind her the unmusical nature of her voice is exposed. Sometimes I Sit has two long, meandering bluesy tracks, “Small Poppies” and “Kim’s Caravan,” that clock in at just about seven minutes apiece and couldn’t hold my attention that long. When she reduces the tempo, it works better with more storytelling; “Depreston” starts out as an ennui-scented trip to buy a house in the suburbs, only to turn dark when she sees signs of the previous owner’s life in some of the house’s features and décor. The story evolves so that the languid pace of the song never becomes an obstacle for the listener. Plus she points out in the lyrics that by making coffee at home she’s saving $23 a week; we should all admire such thrift. “Dead Fox” is one of the album’s catchier songs, but it’s a rare case of Barnett’s lyrics – a critique of consumerism (including the feel-good variety) – feeling forced.
Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit is the best debut album I’ve heard so far this year, and one of maybe a half-dozen albums I can think of so far this decade that I’d recommend on the basis of its lyrics alone. Barnett’s ideas threaten to spill out of the speakers, and the quality of her music is already improving. She’s probably destined to remain on alternative stations because of her quirky delivery and too-cerebral lyrics (you have to pay attention to them), but she deserves a wide enough audience to keep her producing this kind of art for many more albums.