The term “slacker-rock” pops up a lot in reviews of Courtney Barnett’s music, which is a shame. Not only is it a lazy description (oh, the irony), it’s also wrong: It takes a lot of discipline and effort to write songs that sound as casual and off-the-cuff as hers do.
True, “slacker-rock” is less a judgment of character than shorthand for a certain sound. But it still doesn’t account for the way Barnett delivers her lyrics in casual conversational torrents over zooming guitar riffs, and it doesn’t come close to capturing Barnett’s facility with words. She displays a high-verbal dexterity that verges on dazzling throughout Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, her first full-length album (not including last year’s A Sea of Split Peas double-EP).
The Australian singer and songwriter has a keen eye for unexpected detail, along with a bone-dry wit. Over a syncopated, clapping beat and gruff guitars on opening track “Elevator Operator,” she imagines a disillusioned twentysomething who skips work, “fare-evades his way down the 96 tram line,” and finds himself on the receiving end of a pep talk from a Botoxed older woman, “hair pulled so tight you can see her skeleton.” Two songs later, on “An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York),” she battles insomnia with an inventory of the borrowed apartment she’s staying in, reading the cracks on the wall like the lines on her palm and describing the décor: “It’s Art Deco necromantic chic/ All the dinner plates are kitsch with Irish wolf hounds/ French baguettes wrapped loose around their necks/ I think I’m hungry.” After a pause, her voice softens, and she adds, “I’m thinking of you, too,” as a buzzy guitar comes bounding away into the break.
“I like to try to play with a lot of alliteration and see how many syllables I can squeeze into a sentence,” Barnett says. “I write and rewrite just for my own amusement so I can layer up songs.”
Many of the songs draw on punk and garage-rock, with brash guitars and jittery, propulsive beats, but Barnett shows a melancholy side, too. She finds poignancy in house-hunting on the downhearted “Depreston,” where a neighborhood that’s supposed to be upscale just seems bleak, and turns a morose account of the damage humans have inflicted on the environment into an existential meditation on “Kim’s Caravan,” talk-singing softly through a curtain of reverb as untethered loops of guitar swirl past.
More often, Barnett is finding dark humor in awkward situations: nearly drowning while trying to impress a swimming-pool crush on “Aqua Profunda!” or not quite seizing the day on “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go the Party,” where she sings, “You say ‘You sleep when you’re dead’/ I’m scared I’ll die in my sleep.”
Even if that’s true—and Barnett says her songs are usually autobiographical in some way—she hasn’t let it stop her. In fact, by channeling her anxiety into wonderful, shaggy, relatable and supremely catchy songs, she’s made Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit one of the most compulsively listenable albums to come out so far this year.