Album of the Day: Courtney Barnett’s “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit”

Hands down, Barnett’s debut album “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit” was one of my favorite albums of 2015. Even the title of the record sets such an adorable stage for the eleven tracks that Barnett delivers about love, life, hating your job, moving away, insecurity, being lonely and optimism.

The record itself is so simple; the instrumentation is a straightforward arrangement of guitars, drums and bass. There’s very little in terms of pizzazz or fancy production or effects, maybe a few backing vocals here and there, or some distortion. The simplicity of the musical arrangements on the album can sometimes wear on me when the second half rolls around, but what really keeps me coming back to the album is the lyricism.

Barnett always keeps her vocals at the front of the track, delivering half-sung-half-spoken observations and musings on the mundane and everyday aspects of life. The attention to detail of events that so many people can relate to, and the bluntness and honesty, are both adorable and heartfelt.

The leading track on here, “Elevator Operator,” is one of my favorites. In it we receive the story of Oliver Paul, a man “feeling sick at the sight of his computer” on his morning commute who hands his clip-on tie to a homeless man and “…he screams, ‘I’m not going to work today!’/Gonna count the minutes that the trains run late.”

Paul then enlists a woman from the City Hall building to help him accomplish his childhood dream career: an elevator operator. At first concerned with Paul’s tendency to hang out on the rooftop of the City Hall building, they quickly form a friendship as Paul assures her, “I’m not suicidal, just idling insignificantly/I come up here for perception and clarity/I like to imagine I’m playing SimCity.”

It’s a lovely and creative description of the feelings and fantasies of listeners stuck in a job they hate, and the hilarity of Paul’s dream career makes the song even better.

The second track, “Pedestrian at Best,” finds Barnett delivering erratic and frenzied monologues about her shortcomings as a friend, romantic partner, musician and performer and just in general life over a roaring guitar riff. Halfway through the song she breaks down and beings what seems like a stream of consciousness recitation of her insecurities, working herself into a yell of “…I suppose we all outgrow ourselves/I’m a fake, I’m a phoney, I’m awake, I’m alone/I’m homely, I’M A SCORPIO!”

It does a great job at mimicking the spectrum of emotions felt in the midst of an attack of low self esteem and self loathing, and captures the feeling of insecurity one feels when pinning their worth on what others think of them.

Another example is “An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York)” which tells the tale of Barnett afflicted by a case of insomnia and ends with her refrain of “I’m thinking of you too” to the person she’s left behind. But it’s not just homesickness and pent-up emotions that’s keeping her awake-she’s got some other pesky anxieties, too. Like what exactly IS that oily smell coming from her kitchen? Should she be concerned with how many cracks are on her ceiling?

Yet another example is the sarcastic and playfully tongue-in-cheek “Nobody Really Cares if you Don’t go to the Party.” In it, Barnett is overcoming a case of fear of missing out as she laments, “I wanna go out but I wanna stay home” over a fun little guitar riff. She reminds herself that staying home is probably better than having “…to pick my brain up off of the floor” listening to the same old stories over and over from other partygoers who secretly hate each other.

But the songs aren’t all just wit and exasperation with daily life. There’s some more thoughtful and introspective songs in the track listing too. A main example is “Depreston,” an acoustic ballad that finds Barnett perusing an old house on the market in a rundown neighborhood that an elderly woman is selling.

While “Depression” isn’t my favorite in the track listing, I have to respect the lyrical ability demonstrated by Barnett on the track. In it, she is experimenting with the use of place as the main character in a work, using the old house as a plot point to explore the bigger ideas of loneliness, nostalgia for a simpler time, how history is used in the formation of a narrative and how memory and emotion can navigate how decisions are made.

However, the major moment unlike the others on here is the nearly 7-minute “Kim’s Caravan,” the penultimate song in the track list. It’s a dark moment of crisis in a track list of upbeat wit, making it stick out even more as an impactful song.

In it Barnett gets existential as she starts to consider the political neglect of the environment she loves (specifically the Great Barrier Reef), leading her to question the negative and positive impacts she’s leaving on the world, and if she’s even doing enough to prevent the social corruption that so displeases her.

Barnett eventually questions her own mortality and what she’s becoming in a fallen society, saying, “We either think that we’re invincible or that we are invisible/When realistically we’re somewhere in between/We all think that we’re nobody but everybody is somebody else’s somebody” and repeating, “Don’t ask me what I really mean/I am just a reflection/Of what you really wanna see/So take you want from me.” She skillfully uses the deteriorating environment and human neglect as a symbol for how she is negatively being shaped by the world around her.

There’s something so charming about how simplistic the album is, but at the same time it must be said that the guitar playing on here is anything but. Barnett delicately plucks and mercilessly wails, sits down with the folky ballad and kicks back with a slamming and hard-rocking stream-of-consciousness jammer, and thoughout the album more than proves herself as a talented and versatile guitarist.

All in all, I’d say this album definitely appeals to me because I’m a writer. Barnett has mastered the skill that essayists spend years trying to perfect-she’s writing catchy stories that people the world over can relate to, taking the mundane and repurposing it into a narrative about her life experiences. She’s honest, she’s blunt and she’s not afraid to sugarcoat her feelings of loneliness, apathy, anxiety, paranoia and even affection.

Thanks for reading, and God bless.

-A.L.D.

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