In a year fraught with emotional intensity and existential drama, the lighthearted Lotta Sea Lice, the new collaborative album by Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile, is a welcome change of pace. Rooted in the artists’ mutual admiration, the album finds the Aussie Barnett and American Vile celebrating one another in a way that highlights increasingly revealed common ground. What began as an idea for a split single evolved into a full-length, and that evolution is on full display on Lotta Sea Lice. The duo’s piecemeal approach to recording—eight days in the studio over almost 15 months—is heard in the uneven final product, but what the album lacks in structural consistency it repays in undeniable chemistry. Lotta Sea Lice finds Barnett and Vile making it up as they go to vital results. The album’s meandering low-stakes approach projects the artists’ comfort with and confidence in each other, illuminates their process and hints at greater possibilities.
The video for the album’s opening track, “Over Everything,” encapsulates the spirit of the album succinctly. In it, Barnett and Vile stare directly at the camera and mouth the words to each other’s vocals against increasingly picturesque backdrops. Trading lyrics about writing music, listening to music and facing the day, neither can contain their smirk for very long. The shots widen, their figures grow smaller and their voices mingle and harmonize. While they never appear together, they are unequivocally on the same wavelength.
The track highlights recurring motifs of the album: the insular world of the artist, where it overshadows the wider world and where those worlds overlap. “When I’m all alone, on my own, by my lonesome, and there ain’t a single ‘nother soul around, I wanna dig into my guitar, bend a blues riff that hangs over everything,” Vile sings wryly.
As a celebration of interpersonal interaction, the album places conversation, friendship, and any other artistic output on equal footing. They all, to some degree, require laying vulnerabilities bare. They all have the power to make us better understood. “I cherish my intercontinental friendships, we talk it over continental breakfast, in a hotel in east bumble wherever,” Barnett sings. “Somewhere on this sphere, around here.”
As an exploration of the creative process, they don’t undersell the associated costs of the artist’s life. Loneliness and selfishness abound, but so does optimism. Both ultimately land on confidence in their choices. The album’s highlight, “Fear is Like a Forest,” finds them exploring the logic (and inevitability) of heeding inspiration and venturing into the unknown to the exclusion of the familiar and the comforting. It is both a reflex and an act of faith. “Touch is like a tourist, you know when you are home, it’s not that I’m a purist, it’s just I’d rather be alone,” Barnett sings. The song builds to a triumphant fullness with both singing in the plainest terms on the album the rewards of the risk: “I know that it works, cause I’ve seen that it’s true, if you just let it go, it’ll come back to you.”
On Lotta Sea Lice, Barnett and Vile stake a small claim, but leave plenty of room for growth. By eschewing ambition in favor of intimacy, the album is both comfortable and comforting. While Barnett and Vile don’t travel far from their established sounds in their collaboration, the sum of their contributions yields fresh results. It’s easy to wish for further collaboration and even easier to envision.