Courtney Barnett’s debut turns mundane into miraculous
Courtney Barnett has this funny quirk that’s hard to parse on first listen. Her vocal affect is often flat, as if she’s reading you the phone book or ticking off her grocery list to the rhythm of a metronome. Her stories, too, are ordinary, the sort of musings most songwriters would never think to examine in the course of a three-minute pop song.
Yet somehow the heavily hyped Australian singer-songwriter turns the mundane into the miraculous on her new debut full-length, “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit.” It’s one of the most arresting albums I’ve heard in a long time. When it wrapped up after 45 minutes, I went back to the first song and pushed play again; it was even better the second time around.
It’s a sonically rich work, grounded in the crunchy grunge and indie rock the 27-year-old grew up hearing on her headphones. Barnett has a heightened sense of what makes a pop song classic: sharp hooks, circular choruses with repeated mantras, and frank observations spiked with droll humor.
She’s been saddled with comparisons to Stephen Malkmus, but I hear more of Jonathan Richman’s rambling spirit in Barnett’s wry tales. She pays close attention to life’s minutiae, spinning narrative webs not unlike those of singer-songwriters such as Joni Mitchell.
Barnett’s profile has been rising ever since the 2013 release of two short albums she packaged together, “The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas.” “Avant Gardener,” her breakthrough song from that collection, was a fluid, conversational account of trying her hand at gardening, only to be struck down by an attack of some variety, asthmatic or probably panic. It was a knotty song with too many details, but each one clever.
Sprawl illuminates Barnett’s new album’s most memorable moments. “Pedestrian at Best” oozes the thick sludge of ’90s alt-rock, with Barnett’s machine-gun spray of lyrics filled with anxiety brought on by failure and self-loathing. “Put me on a pedestal/ And I’ll only disappoint you,” she sings, or practically shouts, later adding: “Give me all your money/ And I’ll make some origami, honey.”
When Barnett loosens her grip, she’s especially mesmerizing. “Depreston” has the spectral glow and shimmer of Scottish indie-pop heartbreakers Camera Obscura. Closing in on seven minutes, “Kim’s Caravan” is a murky, Patti Smith-like fever dream that cracks wide open into a wash of electric-guitar dissonance and Barnett’s repeated plea: “Don’t ask me what I really mean/ I am just a reflection/ Of what you really want to see/ So take what you want from me.”
If it sounds clunky on paper — perusing the liner notes, you see that so many of her more scrambled songs scan like slam poetry — you’d be astonished by how Barnett’s deadpan delivery makes it work. We’ve all been the protagonists of her songs at one point. Take “An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York)”: “I lay awake at four/ Staring at the wall/ Counting all the cracks backwards in my best French.”
An existential crisis has never sounded like so much fun as it does in Barnett’s songs. (Out Tuesday)
ESSENTIAL “Pedestrian at Best”
Courtney Barnett will perform at the Sinclair in Cambridge on May 18; it’s already sold out. She will also be at Newport Folk Festival on July 25.