You can’t call Courtney Barnett the new Dylan. Dylan is just too vast. How can you compare someone to Dylan when Dylan changes so much that every few years you can’t even compare him to himself anymore? No young artist with two EPs and an album, even if it’s as good as Sometimes I Sit And Think And Sometimes I Just Sit, can begin to encompass him.
But at least one side of Dylan has rubbed off on Barnett. She is the Dylan of the mid-60s, the Dylan of Bringing It All Back Home, of Highway 61 Revisited, of Blonde on Blonde. She is Dylan no longer satisfied by folk, slipping towards rock with a rambling monotone. She is Dylan who sounds like he’s going to run out of breath long before he runs out of clever things to say.
Barnett’s cleverness is unrelenting. Again and again she expresses things that you never knew you had noticed. Her setting is suburban (gardens and neighbourhoods are recurring motifs) but she is able to find the romance that lies under all things familiar. In developing the cover art for Sometimes I Sit And Think, Barnett says she drew a series of chairs in her simple line style. It was an exercise in honouring the everyday. Each chair was real, each had a story behind it, each deserved to be remembered. Each represented something we all have: Barnett calls them “really small memories.”
A particular strength of Barnett’s is that she plays and puns even in sadness. In ‘An Illustration Of Loneliness (Sleepless in NY)’ the singer recites a string of the things she’s thinking about, lying awake late. She’s counting the cracks on the walls, remembering a book she skim-read about palmistry and, she adds, she’s “thinking of you too.” She’s thinking of all these dull things, and of someone who isn’t there as well.
But it’s also possible to take ‘Illustration’ as a breakup song. The singer is thinking of an ex now with new partner: she’s thinking of “you two.” Her monotonous delivery makes the true meaning impossible to discern. We delight to find the wordplay, but the new meaning we have found is tragic. And this Dylan-esque richness of meaning is part of what makes her songs stand up so well to repeated listening.
In the past week there has been some backlash over Barnett’s recent album being named Australian Album of the Year by the ABC, the country’s national broadcaster. Amongst others, she triumphed over Chet Faker and Tame Impala. But as an Australian storyteller telling Australian stories, she deserved the award.
Culture can be a window that you look through and see others, or it can be a mirror that you look at and see yourself. If an American or a European consumes a lot of their local cultural products, it’s as if they live in a big house with a few windows and a lot of well-lit mirrors in which to see themselves.
But for the Australian it’s different. Barnett says, “I guess growing up you just get used to the people that are in magazines and on TV—it’s like a separate world to the world we live in.”
The Australian is the weird neighbour sitting up in the darkened window. They look out so much that they begin to learn the habits of everyone else on the street. But of course they can’t see themselves. (If they could they’d stop being so weird up there in the window.) But the little cracked mirror, their own culture, is tucked away in a stiff cupboard somewhere in the basement.
Listening to Barnett’s unashamedly suburban, Australian songs, the Australian begins to realise that their lawn may need a trim. And in her musings they may even catch the rare and welcome glimpse of a flattering reflection.
To watch Courtney Barnett’s full set at the Forum Melbourne, click here.
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Courtney Melba Barnett (born 3 November 1987) is an Australian singer-songwriter and guitarist from Melbourne. Known for her witty, rambling lyrics and deadpan singing style, she attracted attention with the release of her debut EP, I’ve Got A Friend Called Emily Ferris. International interest from the UK and North American music press came with the