Book Album Book: Courtney Barnett’s Tell Me How You Really Feel

Jeff T. Johnson


Book Album Book: An Introduction

This piece is part of an ongoing series, Book Album Book, that reads albums as cohesive works of literature. Wherever possible, the album format will be vinyl LP. This is a matter of preference, and allows for consideration of full-size album artwork and song/side orientation. In some cases there will be a follow-up piece for a stop on the album tour. This approach to writing about music in literary and cultural contexts is an extension of the Musicological Poetics of Trouble Songs. The Book Album Book playlist gathers albums that inspire this series.

That’s the blurb. Here are the liner notes.

We live with albums. So we cue and revisit memories in relation to the ways we hear those albums, which themselves do and do not change over time. The same album often sounds different in a few years as we change our minds, but an album can also be an anchor for experience: it stays put even as we drift around it. As we return to albums that were meaningful to us years ago, we revisit ourselves, but also recognize how we have grown. We inscribe another record on those albums, even if no one else can hear it. And whether we notice or not at the time, we leave something of ourselves there, even if it’s just the self that had not yet been affected by that album, or the self that wept or screamed or sang along to it for the first time.

Book Album Book is an attempt to read albums in relation to what they might mean at a given moment, but it’s also a personal rendering of experience. We’ll try to take our time, to allow for a deeper sense of listening, even as we try to make this series a regular thing. We resist the idea that an album can be reviewed or rated to anyone’s satisfaction—or, at least, we assert that such an approach prevents us from considering albums as literature, or art. We believe in hybrid forms, and approach music writing in that spirit. This is not to say an album and a book are the same thing, or that a song is a poem, short story, or chapter. Nor are we arguing that these are concept albums, or that the artists who make them have a grand narrative or scheme in mind.

But in that hybrid spirit, we believe we can read albums as literary art, to think about how they come together, how musicians and listeners collaborate on meaning, and how culture informs and is informed by albums. We tend to write in the plural, but not to speak for others, except to the extent that we are other to ourselves over time. This is how we allow for and acknowledge that ongoing change. To the extent that address invites you to listen and think along with us, to be here together, you’re warmly welcome—and should it feel too broad or even presumptive, we apologize in advance. We have to be true to ourselves, listen with our ears and what we know, and what we don’t know.


And now, we’ll kick this series off with a look at Courtney Barnett’s Tell Me How You Really Feel:


There is a moment, perhaps, before you know the name of your favorite album. And there is a moment, perhaps, after which you have been streaming the album and you get the vinyl. And as you crack the gatefold spine you find yourself reflected in tin foil, over the lyrics.[1] It is the latest touch on a supremely thoughtful record. The point of the cover—a close-up, almost blurry, red-filtered photo[2] of Barnett—is the stare, not the proximity. All of this is obvious on vinyl. And you notice also that the red hue is just like on Willie Nelson’s Phases & Stages, and you reflect that Courtney Barnett was always kind of country. And the crunchy production fits.

Barnett already has “Avant Gardener” and “Depreston” in her repertoire. And now she has “City Looks Pretty” and “Need a Little Time.” And an album of material that is reverent and skeptical of Pavement, Nirvana, Hole,[3] and fucking Fleetwood Mac.[4] It is rock and it is emo and it is listening,[5] even as Barnett is grappling with the burden of speaking for herself and others.

Crunchy. “Nameless, Faceless” is a statement, a state of the union, while it is also a return to form after the opening four songs. The verse is the opening of the album we thought she’d make. Buried, it gets to be a song, not the song, particularly in the fifth spot, where you put your second slugger, in the classic baseball lineup rock record rationale Barnett seems to be following.

How different this album is before you see the handwriting on its walls. Or understand there’s a side flip between “Nameless, Faceless” and “im not your mother, im not your bitch.”[6] Albums have sides (even if we can’t see them) and when bands use them albums become compositions.

It’s getting louder / It’s getting louder now, the first song, “Hopefulessness,”[7] says. And it’s right. The album obliges and takes off. All of us are breaking up. And when in “Charity” Courtney[8] lets us know that we could use a time out, it is not just from me but from you. And when it is both you and me, the guitar brings me back around.

Sometimes we deserve a mid-tempo rocker. Courtney obliges.

Glenn Branca is dead. Dolores O’Riordan is dead. Mark E. Smith is dead. The obvious is so often running out of steam. We listen them away. And we review Barnett’s[9] albums like we are reviewing Courtney Barnett. As though by choosing to record under her own name she brought this upon herself. So far Barnett has been able to refuse our entreaty,[10] which is a suicide pact: let’s go down together into namelessness, facelessness. She’s read (and listened) as much as we have, and knows all those floating lines.

Are you listening, from “Charity,” could just as easily refer to the speaker as someone else. And this is another way to complicate (or frustrate) our tendency to equate the singer with the speaker, to imagine the album (and all of her music) as The Diary of Courtney Barnett, Rock Storyteller. But stories, good ones, have lives of their own. In “Need a Little Time,” that me and you are interchangeable, and switch places in neighboring choruses, just as they are artificially (and artfully) separated during each chorus.

This is one of the remarkable advances in Barnett’s songcraft on Tell Me How You Really Feel. The songs have more room for me and you. Perhaps some level of granular detail is sacrificed for this invitation, but there’s a reward, for us, in that sacrifice. Not only are we warmly invited to think about our own lives while we listen, but we’re invited to return again and again to the hearth of this album, to bask in its red glow. It’s funny and not a little pointed, then, when Barnett sings, on the new album’s last track, I know all your stories but I’ll listen to them again. And here we need to remember that we know very little about Barnett from her songs, even if they make us feel like we are old friends.

And still, when Barnett sings I hold my keys between my fingers, we know she has had this experience, and that, of course, I want to walk through the park in the dark. We do too, and whether or not the culture is set up for us to take that walk without fearing for our lives, we can feel her pain, anger and bemusement. It’s such a simple thing, that walk. And like so many other mundane parts of our lives, it’s a fucking war zone here in 2018 (and yet, It’s all the same, never change never change! as she sings in the next song, after the pause—if not the walk in the park—between sides).

Even when Barnett is writing about  others, as in sometimes i sit and think’s opener, the well celebrated, novelistic “Elevator operator,” which narrates a morning in the life of Oliver Paul (quite the Beatlesesque character name), we want to locate her in her tale. So it’s both Oliver’s story and hers, and we listen to her and see him standing at roof’s edge, looking down upon us. We’re behind him as well, standing next to Courtney, who we imagine is coaxing him off the ledge, even as she imagines the same, while she can’t help adding that she’d kill for his youthful skin. So Oliver berates us all for misreading him when he says he’s not gonna jump, he’s just clearing his head. Project much?

Fame requires every kind of excess. Fame, this special kind, feeds itself on outrage, on what the counselors of lesser men would consider bad publicity—hysteria in limousines, knife fights in the audience, bizarre litigation, treachery, pandemonium, and drugs. Perhaps the only natural law attaching to true fame is that the famous man is compelled, eventually, to commit suicide.

So the cracked-actor rock star Bucky Wunderlick realizes at the start of Great Jones Street (1973), just as he’s going (or is he long gone?) off the rails, that “our audience wanted more than music, more even than its own reduplicated noise.” Don DeLillo, not the most rock-and-roll persona, but certainly a rock-star novelist, aptly nailed the rock star to the cross before his audience. It’s a fitting epigraph (and prologue) for musicians who are transformed into martyrs by our rapture. And it’s a cautionary tale for those who might avoid such a fate, as Bob Dylan pretty much has (though he might have died a few times, only to rise in a new form/at). It’s a warning Kurt Cobain, another world-devouring/devoured rock star to whom Barnett draws comparisons, could not or would not heed.

We see the pincers closing in on Courtney Barnett. Fortunately, we see her see them too. And she’s given us an album that smacks The Man’s hand away. Not just the one with the forceps, but the one with a mirror that is really a painting. She gets to say what her art is. We get to listen, sing along, and write our own damn songs if we want to do things our way.

Like many musicians who attain (however briefly) the level of fame Courtney Barnett is approaching, she is shoved toward collapsing into a perceived (and projected) persona. Are you listening? she sings, and if we are, we’ll hear her say she is and isn’t the person she seems to be in her songs. And we’ll notice that when she sings you she’s also singing me, and vice versa.[11] This is not a claim for universality in her songs, but of empathy. With herself and others. This empathic intelligence, and her awareness of those who came before her, and those who left too soon, is what might save her from the broken self we make famous people be. May the next wave of rock stars follow her lead, away from the ledge, even as they find their own ways. Pull back n release.


[1] For a moment you are looking at the cover of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s Orange, or Ghost’s Tune In, Turn On, Free Tibet, or Ariana Reines’ book Mercury. All those albums on which we grow old.

[2] It’s both soft and harsh, and evokes infra-red, stage-light, and a darkroom encounter.

[3] It puts you down, Barnett sings in the other Courtney’s voice on the last track, “Sunday Roast.”

[4] Those of us who can’t stand the coked-out forced sentiment of Rumours, and the dopey faces people put on when they hear or mention the album, can still appreciate the ways its melodic and tonal influence are visiting contemporary pop. And here we use the term pop the way we used to use a term like indie rock—less a matter of sound than spirit. That Barnett manages to evoke both pop music and indie rock, along with folk and country, is signal to her music.

[5] All music listens to other music, but some songs are better listeners than others.

[6] It’s difficult to render the handwriting, because the i in the first word looks lower case, there is no apostrophe, and the other letters all seem to be caps. And it looks like the second i-dot doubles as an apostrophe.

[7] Until we typed this we’d been seeing Hopefulness, and maybe sometimes Hopelessness, but not at the same time.

[8] If we may, though such proximity might put us in closer range of some problems we’ve yet to address. By the way, forgive us our plural address, but we’re not who we used to be, and this seems like the truest way to account for our many returns to the music and the writing. It also lets in the larger we who listens in on both. In that case, forgive us as well for any pushiness in our enthusiasms, and the conceit of bringing you along, even if you’re the friend who isn’t sure they wanted to go to the show.

[9] Let’s return for the moment to the respectful distance of her family name.

[10] One of the running themes on her first full length (sometimes i sit and think, and sometimes i just sit.) is the relationship between self-abnegation and projection, which she explores in lines like Don’t ask me what I really mean, I am just a reflection of what you really wanna see, so take what you want from me (“Kim’s caravan”), and Oh! the humanity I wanna disappear into obscurity (“Small poppies”).

[11] So the yogic, self-help parody of “Help Your Self” is a note to self, to others, and to self as other: You got a lot on your plate, don’t let it go to waste / Humble but hungry, need validation / … / Pull back n release.