It’s easy to forget that it’s been a little over six years since Courtney Barnett released her debut album ‘Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit’. In the relatively short time since it’s release, ‘Sometimes I sit’ has already become an indie landmark, and for good reason too. In an over-saturated alternative scene, filled with many a poor imitation act, Barnett has always sounded immediately distinct; and her debut offered a near faultless showcase of her deadpan wit and unrivalled ability to move from the forceful and anthemic to the introspective and subdued. In the years since, Barnett has been prolific; releasing two more solo studio albums, a collaborative LP with Kurt Vile, and two additional live albums. Barnett has never managed to outrun the shadow of her debut, but her talent for bleak humour and indie-rock earworms has remained undimmed across later releases.
Barnett’s newest offering, recorded during lockdown, sees her do away with most of her usual band members – perhaps out of necessity rather than choice. Meanwhile, despite the backdrop against which it was written – a pandemic, ravenous fires in her home country of Australia and, a break-up with her girlfriend of six years – ‘Things Take Time’ is Barnett’s sweetest and most optimistic work to date.
On her breakout hit – and biggest song to date – 2013’s ‘Avant Gardener’, Barnett woke up having already written off the day before it had even begun (“I sleep in late, another day / Oh what a wonder, oh what a waste”). Like much of her work, ‘Things Take Time’ focuses on the mundane, but finds beauty in it rather than simply begrudging acceptance. “It’s the simple thrills”, she declares on ‘Here’s the Thing’, “that get me through the day until the next one”.
Indeed, that lyric alone could act as the mission statement for this entire album. Barnett’s musical focus has always been on the micro, on the present-moment; she has always centred in on characters whose lives feel largely detached from any given timeline or political reality. In their ‘Best New Music’ review of ‘Sometimes I Sit’, Pitchfork described Barnett as an artist with “no apparent agenda“; something that set her music apart from the 2010s predominant indie artists who seemed to serve as much as generational voices as they did musicians.
Even by her own standard, however, the focus of these songs are incredibly small, mundane and immediate. Half the time it feels as though these song’s lyrics cover a time period about as short as the song’s themselves. ‘Rae Street’ – something of an ‘Avant Gardener’ follow up – sees Barnett spend the track’s 4-and-a-half-minutes peering out her window; watching a mother bickering with her children, the garbage truck come and go and, the couple opposite painting the “faded brick”; asking, as she watches, “what’s the point? It looks fine from up here”. In the first verse, she delivers an instantly recognizable, characteristic line that ties together the personal and the profound:
Light a candle for the sufferin’
Send my best wishes with the wind
All our candles, hopes and prayers
Though well-meanin’, they don’t mean a thing
Unless we see some change
I might change my sheets today
‘Write A List of Things To Look Forward To’ does something similar, with Barnett remarking “A baby is born / As a man lay dying” before changing her focus, “I’m looking forward to the next / letter that I’m gonna get from you”. ‘Things Take Time’, after all, is at it’s heart, the sound of looking out at the world, see it’s spiral into destruction and holding everyone you love a little closer because of it. “Before you gotta go (go, go go) / I wanted you to know (know, know, know) / You’re always on my mind” she sings on ‘Before You Gotta Go’, “if anything were to happen to you”, she adds, “I wouldn’t want the last words you hear / To be unkind”.
It’s a remarkably straightforward declaration and one that would sound saccharine sung by anyone else, but from the traditionally deadpan Barnett, there’s a remarkable power to it’s sincerity. As one popular Youtube comment put it, listening to these songs feels like putting on a warm sweater immediately after it’s come out the drier. ‘Things Take Time’ is the most understated release of her career and one that lacks the instant standouts of past works, and yet I’ve never felt as viscerally moved by a Barnett release as I do this one. It captures the sheer mundanity of lockdown better than any other album to date, and does so without ever forcing listeners to relive the collective trauma of that time. As one critic wrote, ‘Things Take Time’ “captures something true and profound about how we relate to the world and each other”, and as such it remains a vital addition to an exclusively vital discography. Barnett, it turns out is proving to be one of modern day rock’s most reliably great artists. The subdued sound of this LP may at first confound fans, but know that with every new listen new nuggets of gold unfurl from this album; it just takes time, take time.
Best Tracks: Rae Street, Write a List of Thing’s To Look Forward To, If I Don’t Hear From You Tonight, Oh The Night, Sunfair Sundown
Worst Track: Turning Green