Courtney Barnett Faces Doubts and Doubters on ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’

Courtney Barnett Faces Doubts and Doubters on ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’

Courtney Barnett’s third solo studio album is “Tell Me How You Really Feel.”Credit

Ms. Barnett’s new songs sound like conversations she’s having with herself, her intimates and, in one song (the Pretenders-tinged “Nameless, Faceless”), the anonymous internet trolls who “Sit alone at home in the darkness/With all the pent-up rage that you harness.” As guitars surge in its chorus she wonders, not idly, if verbal abuse could become actual assault, paraphrasing Margaret Atwood: “Men are scared that women will laugh at them,” she sings. “Women are scared that men will kill them.”

“Tell Me How You Really Feel” is in many ways, an anthology of contention: lovers’ quarrels, negotiations with associates and friends, and arguments that are as much with herself as with others. “I get most self-defensive when I know I’m wrong,” she admits in a raw-voiced, feedback-laced stomp called “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch”; the title sounds defiant, but in the song it’s followed by an unexpected attribution, “I hear you mutter under your breath.”

Even in conflict, Ms. Barnett stays levelheaded; she can’t help seeing multiple sides of every situation. In “Need a Little Time,” she tries to sort out a tense relationship with apologies, interventions and eventually withdrawal: “I need a little time out/From me, me, me, me and you.” Amid the fuzz-toned tunefulness of “Charity,” she tries to cope with someone’s mood swings by offering sympathy (“You don’t have to pretend you’re not scared/everyone else is just as terrified as you”), placation and cheerleading (“Everything’s amazing!”), even as she starts feeling “so subservient I make myself sick.” And in “Walkin’ on Eggshells,” which harks back to the Neil Young of “Harvest,” she realizes “I don’t wanna hurt your feelings/So I say nothing.” But then she urges, “Say what you mean to say.”

All those ambivalences govern the music, too. Ms. Barnett sticks to the indie-rock basics of guitars, bass and drums, with a keyboard now and then, and it’s all the palette she needs. She plays raucous, untamed lead guitar in “Charity” and “Help Your Self”; in “City Looks Pretty,” a song about post-tour letdown, she and the guitarist Dan Luscombe stack up frantic, droning strummed guitars that telegraph both nervous energy and homebound stasis.

The album ends with “Sunday Roast,” a tentative offer of reconciliation after all the friction of the previous songs: “Keep on keepin’ on, y’know you’re not alone/And I know all your stories but I’ll listen to them again.” Reverb envelops a steady-state drumbeat and a circular guitar picking pattern; there are ripples of tension but the outcome is soothing.

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