Rare, unaffected wit, among many things, is what singled out Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett on her wicked smart debut ‘Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit’ – charming, intelligent observations with just the right measure of petulance. Humour and popular music can be strange bedfellows in the wrong pair of hands but not for Barnett, who quickly carved out a reputation for off-kilter songwriting. She knew the perils of high expectations from the beginning; “put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you”, she warned on 2015’s ‘Pedestrian At Best’ but three records in, she’s yet to hit a bum note.
‘Things Take Time, Take Time’, as its title suggests, lingers in the spaces that her previous records would saturate with cleverness. She opens in familiar fashion in an unfamiliar setting: ‘Rae Street’ rings out with guitars like a Tom Petty classic as Barnett recounts the monotony of lockdown Melbourne with curious detail, “just waiting for the day to become night.” The Aussie’s sharp eye for lyrical everyday idiosyncrasies (“vegemite crumbs everywhere”, “pyramids out of Coke cans”) always made for a compelling listen, encouraging you to delve deeper with your own peculiar observations.
‘Take Time’, meanwhile, introduces a similarly discerning yet noticeably less quippy Courtney Barnett, shaped by a more pensive time period. Her remarks are lighter because of it: less self-deprecating, boisterous poetry and more sentimental treatises, doling out tough love on ‘Before You Gotta Go’ – “I’m not your enemy / maybe let’s cut out caffeine” – and seeking reconciliation over avoidance. “This one actually feels vulnerable,” she says of the record, which was co-produced by her friend Stella Mozgawa from the band, Warpaint. Across the 10 tracks, she takes the time to observe; rendering a collection of short stories with care and attention. “I watch what’s going on” is her simple and touching manifesto.
‘If I Don’t Hear From You Tonight’ is the sweetest short story on offer; a love song suspended in a particular moment. “Is now an okay time to tell you that I like you?” she asks her crush with teenage timidity. You can hear the anxieties bubbling beneath Barnett’s deadpan vocals, concerned that her affection is an intrusion – “Now that I got your attention / I don’t wanna bore the brains outta your head”. She waits for the reply, she waits for the reply and eventually surrenders to the time. Not everything needs to be immediate.
That hard-earned patience is there on another highlight, ‘Write A List of Things To Look Forward To’. Set to sprightly guitars and percussion, the track is deceptively bittersweet in the vein of The Magnetic Fields, with Barnett trying to escape some natural Debbie Downer tendencies. A baby is born but she follows it up with a death that happened in the interim. God might open a window but Barnett can’t help but fixate on the closed door. The hope lies, then, in the fact that “nobody knows why we keep trying”, in the companionship while “the world burns”. Besides, she has a letter from a friend to look forward to.
Barnett’s second record, ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’, may have sounded vulnerable on the surface, but sometimes it takes time for people to tell us how they really feel. ‘Things Take Time, Take Time’ is a tender mantra for a tender record. If a couple of the quips feel a little lacklustre, it’s easy to miss the acerbic wit of “I think you’re a joke, but I don’t find you very funny” or the grungy fever of her previous album. But Courtney Barnett isn’t here to repeat herself. She dips her paintbrush in the shades of blue of the album artwork but these blues have flecks of optimism. It takes time for it to unfurl but when it does, “the windowsill is momentarily filled with sun.”