Courtney Barnett clattered into the public sphere — here in the U.S., anyway — with a fitting hesitancy. Her first two EPs were collected together on a release that got the most meager of pushes, as if her modest indie label, Mom + Pop Music, was concerned about her flaring out too quickly in the ever-fickle stateside scene (a fear that was probably spot on, p.s. and by the way). Then her proper debut full-length, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, arrived to acclaim and broader recognition that escalated like a fireworks show grand finale. The self-effacing, endearingly anxious lyrics, gently warbled vocals, and muscular guitar work added up to something special, drawing on decades of college rock affected disaffection and miraculously making it seem fresh.
For her sophomore effort (following a collaboration with Kurt Vile, released last year), Barnett demonstrates a capacity to grow beyond the tender, wryly comic scuffle of her previous work. Tell Me How You Really Feel is fuller and richer, with lyrics that are slightly more conventional and music that chugs along amiably only to take nifty little turns into noisemaker bursts of sly invention. She doesn’t exactly shed her prior skin, but there’s a sense she’s trying to wriggle out of it. At first, “City Looks Pretty” is familiar Barnett, presenting the jauntiest version of the slacker lifestyle (“”Sometimes I get sad/ It’s not all that bad/ One day, maybe never/ I’ll come around”), peppered with guitar flourishes that sound like the precise moment a purr turns into a growl. Before it ends, though, the song shifts into a more ruminative tone, as if a brave face has slipped away.
“Need a Little Time” offers the indie rock version of the downbeat melodic exhaustion with life perfected by Kacey Musgraves. There’s a similar vibe on “Walkin’ on Eggshells,” which finds Barnett singing, “Before we get started, I’ll clean this up/ No use drinking from a leaking cup/ You know what I mean?” Barnett wanders sonically with the punk punch of “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch” and the vibrantly catchy “Charity.” Variety is always welcome, but I can’t quite shake the sense that the little shifts in sound on the album aren’t assured explorations so much as Barnett trying doors at random, waiting to discover a confirming mirror. Maybe that’s because when it doesn’t quite work (as on “Help Your Self”), Barnett’s brimming creative personality becomes vaporously indistinct.
It’s still early on the arc of Barnett’s career, so it’s entirely reasonable for her to skid a little as she sprints forward. Tell Me How You Really Feel is a strong album, just not quite as nimble as its predecessors. The sneaky ingenious songwriter is still there, and it’s a pleasure listening to her find her way.