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Because pop music is essentially an inexhaustible list of subgenres, it can be easy to forget how energizing indie rock songs in the hands of a gifted lyricist and songwriter can be. Courtney Barnett names this album Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, which alludes to her role as slacker and humorist, leaving behind the struggle to be a high-minded scholar with a fountain pen and perching her feet up to let her views on life, love, death, success, and failure come naturally. Barnett occupies Sometimes I Sit and Think... with damaged individuals and her own deep thoughts, which resonate even more intensely when mingled with the brand of '90s-inspired riffs and guitar haze she employs.
Over the past few years, Melbourne-based Barnett has proven to be a wiz at alt-rock with detail-oriented lyrics that play like short fiction: their fuzzy arrangements are immediate and propulsive, but her predilection for storytelling proves a much longer game, where she is able to build scenes of bedtime reflection, nighttime masturbation, oceanside drinking, and nosy neighbors that feel self-contained yet add nuances that pay off later. Sometimes I Sit and Think... has Barnett tightening up that style. Here, she works with like-minded producer and lead guitarist Dan Luscombe, whose experience with Australian garage rock group The Drones makes him an ideal choice to help the first-time producer articulate a sepia-toned sound that still feels a little dirty. Barnett's style of writing boils away layers and decorative words, singing instead in a confessional style that is at once more direct yet packed with subtext. When she sings, "Her heels are high and her bag is snakeskin / Hair pulled so tight you can see her skeleton / Vickers perfume on her breath" on opener "Elevator Operator", it provides a detailed character sketch of this superficial older woman- she's tapping into the sort of work Stuart Murdoch was producing with Belle & Sebastian in the '90s, the way she uses a bird's eye view for this story of a woman and a boy using scant details to provoke much more. After that funny romp filled with twists and turns, Barnett falls back on her signature inner monologue for the remainder of the album, zooming in and out of frames of mind to show a young woman just as above average as everyone else: "I'm a fake, I'm a phony, I'm awake, I'm alone, I'm homely, I'm a Scorpio" on first single "Pedestrian at Best" only scratches the surface of her complexities and flaws. A high-energy guitar riff that feels like an amplified Kinks track, a double-tracked vocal, and an ironic line in the chorus are the perfect disclaimers for a song about a relationship that mirrors as commentary on Barnett's place in the music scene, pitting the grotesque imagery of "turpentine cyanide" with origamis made of money to prove the song's just a big joke at her expense. As evidenced from the best moments on Sometimes I Sit and Think..., the way Barnett fashions finely drawn content (too tedious to write) and merging the universal with the intimate in the space of one bar is quite a feat. She may be witty, and she may have a fascination with the mundane, but her songs are a mess of emotions.
The album's centerpiece "Depreston" spotlights that knack for leaping from the mundane to the transcendental, as Barnett picks up extra force through her relaxed delivery of domestic partnership, which clearly informs listeners that the next step in a relationship does not necessarily bear more fruit or excitement; sometimes saving $23 a week on coffee is as exciting as it gets. That the guitar melody is reminiscent of indie rock quintet Real Estate, who also have their own thoughts on domesticity and the search for truth, is only more chilling. This reflection on domesticity then passes on to a home viewing, a "Californian bungalow in a cul-de-sac" with a two-car garage where she learns about the previous homeowner through "the handrails in the shower, a collection of canisters for coffee, tea, and flour / And a photo young man in a van in Vietnam". Suddenly, the song moves from the boredom of home life to the pointlessness of settling and collecting things only to unknowingly leave them behind. After that, she repeats "If you've got a spare half a million / You could knock it down and start rebuilding", and the search for a home is unexpectedly about life and the inevitability of change.
Continuing the streak of acid wash rockers, "Aqua Profunda", a play on the Italian words for deep water, is about a swimming pool crush that leaves her goggles foggy, "Dead Fox" references Built to Spill and The Shins while the bashful narrator breathlessly recounts a day out buying organic food and nearly running into a truck on the highway, and "Nobody Really Cares If You Don't Go to the Party" is another dalliance in amped up bass and high energy guitar as she draws out "I wanna go out but I wanna stay home". "Nobody Really Cares If You Don't Go to the Party" actually underlines the neurotic behavior listeners were introduced to in "Avant Gardener" when she admits to her friend or partner that she makes excuses for not having a bubbly personality, preferring the sound of the rain to the likelihood of suicide if she interacts with others for too long. The guitars on these track start from the bottom, the drums hit harder, and the occasional organ colors the occasional song as a possible nod to classic rock bands. Listeners most likely won't pick up on much of this because of the effortlessness in her vocals that she teams with overstuffed lyrics.
If there's a fault to be found in Sometimes I Sit and Think..., it's the album's preference to play color-by-numbers rock. The album, especially the middle third, seems to intermingle as one long song. The tempos are steady, Barnett's voice becomes one-dimensional, and the verse, chorus, verse, chorus structure with vaguely familiar guitar lines can get tiresome. But bookending the front and back half of the album with "Small Poppies" and "Kim's Caravan" shines a levelheaded light to those familiar proceedings with straightforward yet ruminative shifts about identity and self-confidence. This is an album about Courtney claiming her identity, a close-knit group of songs embodying her as a caustic narrator letting honesty coarse through her work. Both are bone-shaking slowburners that combust at the end of their seven minute track times. "I don't know quite who I am," she sings on "Small Poppies", "oh but man I am trying / I make mistakes until I get it right / An eye for an eye for an eye for an eye for an eye / I used to hate myself but now I think I'm alright". Later, on "Kim's Caravan," she admits, "We all think that we're nobody but everybody is somebody else's somebody" before the chorus hits, "I am just a reflection / Of what you really wanna see / So take what you want from me". That embrace of her complexities, of stating that at least she knows that she can get back up after falling down and, in the way only introverts or people who like solitude can understand, enjoy closing her eyes to let life happen. That's why Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit is so easy to grasp: because of her occasional peace of mind with her imperfections, she can find meaning in a cloud of meaninglessness.