On ‘Things Take Time, Take Time’, Courtney Barnett Finds Peace In Chaos
'Things Take Time...' is a self-portrait, a snapshot of an artist at the very cusp of understanding their life and how they want to live it.
Courtney Barnett has always been an observer.
Her debut album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, is the sound of an artist sitting on a hill, hands shielded against the sun, and watching the world go by. ‘Elevator Operator’ sings in its smallest details; ‘Depreston’ constructs an entire world out of takeaway cups of coffee and the possessions left to accumulate dust in a deceased estate.
Barnett’s eye is clear; trained to track minutiae. When she sings, as on ‘Dead Fox’ about roadkill building up on the side of a highway, it is without hyperbole or metaphor. If Courtney Barnett tells you that she’s sitting down, she’s sitting down.
But in this keen skill for people-watching, the artist herself has gotten somewhat lost. Even her most autobiographical songs — the woozy paranoia of ‘Avant Gardner’ paramount amongst them — are narrated by a neutral observer, one who has stepped outside of Barnett’s frame. And when she dovetails into politics, as on ‘I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch’, it is as a journalist, not an op-ed author.
The “I” is present in her work, but notably intangible: you can walk away from a Courtney Barnett record knowing less about what the artist herself feels than when you began. Tell Me How You Really Feel, the title of her second album, feels like a knowing riposte to those invasive attempts to understand her. “You do the talking,” it says.
This is no criticism. The singer-songwriter as confessional poet is a boring myth, one worth retiring — after all, not even the confessional poets always confessed, and dredging up the detritus at the bottom of your heart is but one way of making art.
It’s merely to note that Barnett’s new record, Things Take Time, Take Time marks a distinct change from her earlier work. The external world is still out there, captured in throwaway lines about the kids next door fighting, and lovers waiting for responses to their texts. But each quiet, careful observation also, for the first time, contains a little of Barnett. She has vanished into her surroundings, and her surroundings have vanished into her.
Things Take Time is a self-portrait above all else, a snapshot of an artist at the very cusp of understanding their life and how they want to live it. ‘Write a List of Things to Look Forward To’ is a weary yet optimistic piece of advice delivered by someone who has been hopeless for perhaps longer than they realised, and is only just emerging back out into the world, while ‘If I Don’t Hear from You Tonight’ is a gentle acceptance of the way that other people do wondrous things that are terrifyingly out of our control.
While earlier Barnett songs are acclaimed for their relatability, this is music that could only be made by one person.
While earlier Barnett songs are acclaimed for their relatability, this is music that could only be made by one person; songs stamped with the red ink of individuation. In interviews, Barnett has been honest about her recent struggles with mental health — last year, she found herself wandering around the front of the emergency department, in the middle of a full-blown panic attack. That means Things Take Time is sadder than her previous records, more wounded. There is death, for the first time, on Barnett’s mind — death and the sad ways that capitalism strips the intimacy from the human body. “Time is money,” she sings, wearily, “and money is no man’s friend.”
There’s another boring myth out there — hardship is clarifying, pain is meaning-given. Barnett doesn’t fall for it. One doesn’t get the sense that she has emerged out of difficult years with any greater sense of understanding herself, or the things that have happened to her. There is no retroactive narrative-making, a process of trying to provide blueprints for hurt or anxiety and get to their cause. There is merely a gentle, understated kind of resilience, a grace that manifests itself in Barnett’s insistent guitar lines, and the low timbre of her voice.
The poet Forrest Gander once wrote about the ways that intimacy reveals the mutability of the individual; the way that we are shaped and changed by those we love, and those that love us. That’s where Barnett is at. She contains the world, and the world contains her. She’s still by the window; still watching. But the curtains are wide open. “Let go of that expectation,” she sings on ‘Rae Street’. “Change the station/And find out what you want.”
Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Music Junkee. He tweets @JosephOEarp.
Photo Credit: Mia Mala McDonald