Hello, I’m Doing My Best (Inertia/PIAS)
If it’s Ali Barter who Ali Barter is singing about in most of the songs on her second album, then Ali Barter has lived three or four (tumultuous, uncomfortable, revealing) lives in the time since her 2017 debut, and she ought to be congratulated for coming out seemingly mostly intact.
Well before she addresses someone who could well be her in Magoo with “I don’t know what you read/Got some shit in your head/Looking for a problem/Everybody’s got ‘em”, and mocks the self-pity (“Light a candle/Find an angle/It’s so easy/Being needy”) that preceded the self-awareness (“What I know now is not incredible/Damn sight better than what I knew before”) Barter has accumulated a batch of, ahem, stress aids.
In the album’s opener, Lester alone we find someone “Jacked up on coffee/Whacked out on sleeping pills … Jacked up on ecstasy/Whacked out on Catholic guilt”. But soon, in the bracingly direct Ur A Piece Of Shit, there’s someone going “from gateway drugs to class A drugs” while also going from “pocket money to credit cards”, and Barter drily declares “I love you cos you’re fucked/But baby don’t give up/Your life is a mess and so is mine”.
Then through the self-lacerating History Of Boys – definitely more your black armband view than white blindfold – she moves from cigarettes and ice cream, and apologising because “I don’t know how to stop”, to a short list of things she used to do when she got drunk: black out; “tell you I need you”; tell you you’re the only one I love”; play in a band, “breaking all their toys”.
While Cocktail Bar, which, naturally, begins with a drink, escalates to “when I woke up he was fucking me/And now I feel a little slutty”, finds her “blackouts getting more extreme”, and recalls times when she’s “dumped on the lawn again/I don’t know my name”, Barter sings – hopes? – that someone will understand and “wash it away, won’t you make me clean/I’m not the girl that I want to be”.
You get the picture. She gets the picture. So this is how we got from album title #1, A Suitable Girl, to title #2 Hello, I’m Doing My Best. And we’re only halfway through the album.
Of course, the songs aren’t all about her. Entirely. She’s explained that Lester is about her father and her relationship with him, that Ur A Piece Of Shit is a “love letter to my best friends” and Magoo is about a frustrating friend who complained all the time – and was a lot like her.
But the overall impact of the album is a more nuanced perspective on this, befitting a smart songwriter who deep dived into the gaping maw of self-knowledge. She’s here in all of the songs in some ways: in comparisons, in similarities, in her own issues with substances.
Buffeted by the success of her first album and the realisation that she was where she always wanted to be but now didn’t know why; forced to look at what she was doing (and who she was doing it with); and asking herself who she was and did she like that person, Barter had a torrent of new songs and a flood of uncomfortable further questions.
It was the recognition that “the thing I was pushing against was me”, which freed her to really commit to Hello, I’m Doing My Best, where her own doubts and provocations entwine with those of others.
A place where a song about dreaming of an ex who is “doing well on those big stages in south Brazil”, has her asking him – but just as much, herself – “are you happy, are you happy now?” Of when she can look at her previous life, This Girl who is “making her own rules … she feels like she’s golden”, and bluntly tell her “when you grow up babe, give me a call …you’ve got a way to go”.
The album closes on the promise – to herself, and to us – I Won’t Lie, where Barter sings “I wake up next to people I don’t know/And I drink more than my mother tells me so/And I will not pretend that I’m fine/And I will not lie, no I won’t lie”. But wait.
A tougher, realistic Barter doesn’t let herself slide through. The song actually ends with a more brutal self-awareness, that “I will make promises that I can’t keep/And I will stick my nose where it’s not supposed to be/And I will not pretend that I’m fine/And I will lie I will lie I will lie”.
Ok, sure, but the songs? Glad you asked. Indie pop was for too long, since the flannelette-and-greasy hair decade, an under-appreciated form but Hello, I’m Doing My Best doesn’t bother trying to convince you, feeling more relaxed in its clothes than the lyrics might suggest – at both ends of its tempo markers.
Barter’s energy in racing pieces of ‘90s non-blokey rock such as Ur A Piece Of Shit (double speed drums, full bodied guitars, shouty backing vocals) and History Of Boys (jumpy start, almost sweet melody, swinging guitar lines) is a double kickstart for the album which had begun with the easy acoustic, solo semi-ballad of Lester.
If that sounds like it’s a necessary jolt, I don’t mean it to because Lester is not just quietly, utterly charming but a reminder that frankness or courage in musical choices matters as much here.
That makes it possible to see January, a song of reality hitting aspiration in the chops, which delays the expected route – a big switch up from slow and quiet-ish to heavier and loud – or Are You Happy Now?, which is built from the same material but eschews that route altogether, as no more emblematic of the aesthetic than Backseat’s frisky chase of unfettered enthusiasm.
If Barter doesn’t have the extra pop quality edge of, say, Alex Lahey, which would push some of the more workmanlike of her songs from solid to special, she’s worked her way to something impressively direct and real here. It feels very true.