Tell Me How You Really Feel (Milk!)
Before getting into the sound and energy of this guitar-tastic, rocked-up, fuller-sounding, blast of an album that isn’t afraid of either pop or rock – including at least one moment of “hello, I’ve heard, and ingested the lessons on and off stage, of Kurt Cobain” – and even at times finds its way to glam stomping that would have made Hush blush, I’m going to borrow from Julia Gillard.
While listening to Jen Cloher and Courtney Barnett’s recent albums won’t explain everything about what it’s like to be (a) a performer (b) a performer with a partner who is also a performer, (c) a performer with a partner who is also a performer with whom you run a business and perform together, and (d) a performer with a partner who is also a performer with whom you run a business and perform together, but who is at a different stage of her career (success, momentum, demand-wise), it won’t explain nothing.
Without suggesting everything they have written on these records is about the other and how they/their jobs and lives have interacted – or even that it’s the first time they’ve written about each other - there’s a fascinating mosaic constructed across Cloher’s self-titled album of last year and, now, Courtney Barnett’s second album.
Here are two people finding pleasure in their own and their partner’s success; who are also frank about the disquieting demons that pop up in your head when away or jealous or needy; who aren’t afraid to paint themselves as imperfect, in part because of those demons, or, really, because of their basic humanity.
Take Charity whose second verse begins with a line Barnett has heard from Cloher – “you must be having so much fun” – which can be read joyfully, sarcastically or regretfully, but here is presented in a wider context as a tale about being burnt out just when everything is burning up, of finding ways to “deal” while still trying to be that person you were.
“You don’t have to pretend you’re not scared/Everyone else is just as terrified as you/Medication just makes you more upset/I bet you got a lot to prove I know you’re still the same.”
None of this comes naturally or easily, even in the best of all worlds. As she sings later in the brilliantly named/perfectly Barnett-ly titled, Crippling Self Doubt And A General Lack Of Confidence, there’s been some weird shit and some weird people cutting into these lives in recent times even without the Nirvana references waved in your face.
“Your desperation stinks/I can smell it on your breath/A certain absolut anosmic/Got yourself to blame for this/Tell me how you really feel,” she says with what feels like a caustic suggestion but is in fact delivered with the now characteristic absence of a bitter tongue. “Your opinion means a lot/Well tell me what’s the use?/I never feel as stupid/As when I’m around you.”
And that’s without getting to the odd folk who feel it’s their right to share their views on your choices, or demand your invest in their choices (“I don’t know a lot about you but/You seem to know a lot about me …..I need a little time out/From me/And you”) and the way that entitlement spreads out from the kind of confidence mediocre white men have made an art form of, into the kind of danger regular women of all sorts have come to know all too well.
“He said ‘I could eat a bowl of alphabet soup/And spit out better words than you’/But you didn’t ….. I wanna walk through the park in the dark/Men are scared that women will laugh at them/I wanna walk through the park in the dark/Women are scared that men will kill them.”
Let’s take a moment to consider that, yes, this is only Barnett’s second album. It may seem like we’ve been digesting and revelling in her work for a good while but her first EP only came out in 2012 and the life-changing debut album landed three years and two months ago.
But if it’s only been a handful of years it’s been an accelerated time in Barnett’s writing as well as experience. Look at the way Walkin’ On Eggshells makes its way confidently between early ‘70s piano pop and post-boogie pub rock into what is little more than a slyly lazy stroll. You will want to slip this song a beer and give it your seat on the li-lo for a loll in the pool.
If City Looks Pretty comes at you like bunch of teenagers who’ve heard you’ll front the bar for them (bouncing up and down while affecting a cool drawl), Charity enters the room with shoulders back and its fuzzy guitar raised high, knowing its place is secure. If Help Your Self tricks itself up like some lightly lecherous blues (the tinkle of piano in the pre-chorus a throwaway bit as confident as the big stroking rhythm guitar or the squall of a solo), I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch makes like The Cramps in its lurching leer of a rhythm, and its brevity.
Apart from Need A Little Time, which adds some comforting croon to its mix of barbs and self-exposure, the quiet moment of this album comes right at the end with the gorgeous pop roll of Sunday Roast.
Appropriately enough as it gently glides by like a pushbike ride soundtracked by deep ocean guitars in your headphones, it addresses the comfort of home and acceptance, and the fact that not everything need be perfect. With maybe a splash of the sanguine in the mix to remind you that it’s adults at play here.
“Don’t come with your arms swinging/Throw them around me/Some kind of sweet relief/I hope you never leave/It’s all the same to me,” Barnett sings at the beginning, winding her way four minutes later to an ending that is warmth leavened by experience.
“Keep on keepin’ on yknow you’re not alone/And I know all your stories but I’ll listen to them again/And if you move away yknow I’ll miss your face/It’s all the same to me yknow it’s all the same to me.”