In Courtney Barnett’s latest release, she trades her distortion pedal for a distorted portrait of the indie songwriter that her fans are used to.
Stream: ‘Things Take Time, Take Time’ – Courtney Barnett
One of my favorite Courtney Barnett songs is “Pedestrian at Best,” off of her first studio album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. In this song, she traverses at least ten different emotions before the first chorus. The chaotic music which supports those lyrics directly reflects that, embodying rage, joy, hatred, disgust, power, etc. Throughout her discography, as Pitchfork’s Alfred Soto has also pointed out, Barnett has used her guitar as a vehicle for conveying emotion. In a musical, characters sing because they’ve reached a state where they have to use song to convey the true depths of their feelings; words will no longer do, they must use music.
Throughout her work, Courtney Barnett’s use of her guitar has employed this tactic really effectively, paralleling feelings of melancholy, frustration, anxiety, with these driving rock guitar lines. In her new album, Things Take Time, Take Time, Barnett continues this method, just not quite as diversely as in the past, and in a very different way. Previously, Barentt’s guitar existed at the forefront of her songs, often taking the lead over her own voice. On Things Take Time, Take Time, it mostly takes a backseat, acting as a supporting character rather than a lead.
Generally, Things Take Time, Take Time feels like a watered-down rendition of the Courtney Barnett that listeners are used to. The biggest issue that this album faces is that the music sinks into the melancholic aspects of Barnett’s songwriting, causing the album as a whole to feel somewhat one-note. What’s frustrating about this is that it’s not a problem that Barnett has had in the past. For example, in her previous album, Tell Me How You Really Feel, there’s this complex sonic narrative which keeps the album exciting. In that album, Barnett features the far reaches of her personal style, paralleling moments of slow pensiveness, in a song like “Sunday Roast,” with moments of punk-style power in a song like “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch.” Or in “Hopefulessness,” Barnett shows herself capable of capturing both sensations in one track, building from a meditative beginning to what feels like an exorcism by the end (and I mean that in the best possible way).
Instead, on Things Take Time, Take Time, there’s not much notable texture to the record; every song kind of bleeds into the next. The whole album takes on a mid-tempo pacing that, by the fourth song, feels a little same-old, same-old, and desperately needs some electricity, some punch, some brawn – but none ever surfaces.
If anything, “Turning Green” and “Write A List of Things To Look Forward To” offer what little variation this album has, but they really only tease at it. “Turning Green” brings this electronic, higher-tempo beat to the foreground, but the guitar doesn’t fully commit to the bit until the second half of the song. The track spans a bit over four minutes and for the first half, not much happens. It’s made up of two verses and no chorus, which then abruptly shifts, replacing Barnett’s vocals with her standard guitar riffing. On any of her other albums, such a transition wouldn’t feel jarring, as the precedence for such a shift would’ve usually been set early in the record and continued throughout, but on this one it feels a little weird.
You could call it a breath of fresh air, finally offering a new, distinct moment to this album; but it feels out of place here, especially when the moments leading up to this instrumental section don’t really support that kind of a shift. The variation which “Write a List of Things to Look Forward To” provides exists solely in its faster tempo. If it was slowed down a few BPM, it wouldn’t be particularly note-worthy in the context of this album.
The song I was the least impressed by was “Take It Day By Day,” because it felt like a throwaway. The shortest song on the record, reaching just under two minutes, is said to be Barnett’s ode to a friend group whom she communicated with via video calls during the pandemic. While the fragmented and awkward vocals replicate the fragmented and awkward early-pandemic feelings of electronic socializing, this use of Barnett’s feelings-to-sound style is ineffective and disinteresting to listen to. The song feels like she needed one more song to finish the album, sat down with drummer Stella Mozgawa for fifteen minutes, popped this out, and emailed it to her producer. It’s a disappointing sentiment that doesn’t reflect Barnett’s overall work, but is present nevertheless.
Now I will say that there is something kind of commendable about the consistency which Barnett features throughout this album. It establishes a certain energy that persists from beginning to end, which makes the piece feel like one cohesive unit. My favorite song off of Things Take Time, Take Time is “Before You Gotta Go.” It’s a truly beautiful song which builds in gravity over time, featuring some of the most complex instrumentation of the whole album. The slight change in tone around the bridge is striking and memorable. The lyrics are sweet and reflect one of the greatest aspects of Barnett’s songwriting style-her relatability.
Even in her use of specific anecdotes, there’s something universal about the messages that Barnett delivers, which is an aspect of most of the songs on Things Take Time, Take Time, but this one was particularly salient, in its themes of remembrance and attempts at resolving regret. It’s just a touching song, simple in all the right ways but supplying this subverted energy that this album can be otherwise lacking in.
Before you gotta go, go, go, go
I wanted you to know, know, know, know
You’re always on my mind
You’re always on my mind
If somethin’ were to happen, my dear
I wouldn’t want the last words you hear
To be unkind, to be unkind
We got angry, said some careless things
Who was wrong remains unclear
Pride like poison, always keepin’ score
You don’t have to slam the door
With Barnett’s skills as a musician taking on less focus in this project, her abilities as a songwriter do shine through and take prominence as this album’s greatest attribute.
In the opening track, “Rae Street,” Barnett follows this stream of consciousness lamentation on the monotonous everyday. It evokes the image of Barnett sitting at her window, flipping between internal and external observations, thinking about her own day to day activities and observing those of others. There’s something agonizing about just how grounded Barnett seems to be, so swallowed in the mundane that all she can look forward to is for “the day to become night,” as she notes in the song.
Perhaps my favorite line from this song is, “There’s one thing I know. The sun will rise today and tomorrow. We’ve got a long, long way to go.” To touch on Barnett’s aforementioned relatability, this sentiment is one of the greatest shared experiences of those on lockdown during the pandemic. There’s such a cool juxtaposition of knowledge and a lack thereof here, knowing that the sun will rise and set, knowing that we’re far from the end of this mess, yet never being able to predict what will happen in the meantime, and she does it with such lyrical simplicity. Barnett has no need for grand metaphors, for poetic observations on universal truths. Her lyrics are so literal and so very poignant, they strike deeply with a soft touch.
As a standalone album, this isn’t a bad one. But as I wrote this review, I found myself struggling to not reference Barnett’s other works as superior examples of her incredible talent. Courtney Barnett is a great songwriter and a great musician, and it makes this album all the more frustrating. As a whole, Things Take Time, Take Time delivers a microcosmic insight into certain aspects of Barnett’s abilities as an artist. Her skills in lyricism are a prominent feature of this record while the complimentary instrumentation takes a disappointing backseat. This disappointment, though, is derived from familiarity with her previous work and a desire to see her flex her potential. Were one to have no interaction with Barnett’s other albums, they’d likely find this one to be fantastic. But this is far from Barnett’s best work.
Maybe I’m just a sucker for Barnett wailing “I’M A FAKE, I’M A PHONY, I’M AWAKE, I’M ALONE, I’M HOMELY, I’M A SCORPIO!” Maybe this is Barnett’s attempt to try her hand at something a little different, to satisfy an artistic need. But in the end, this isn’t really all that different from what Barnett has produced in the past, the volume has just been turned down. What this album needed was some energy, some of the power which I know Barnett is capable of wielding.
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? © Mia Mala McDonald
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