Listen to this track by up-and-coming Melburnian singer-songwriter and leftie guitar slinger Courtney Barnett. It’s “Pedestrian At Best”, a single off her 2015 full-length debut record entitled Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit. This is a live version as featured on a Guardian session, recorded in Shoreditch in London.
This new record was built upon the momentum Barnett created from two previous EPs, another band in Immigrant Union, lots of live appearances as solo act, and on a developing style that matches stream-of-consciousness narratives with tons (make that the more Antipodean heaps) of wattage on top. Her song “Avant Gardener” from her 2013 EP How To Carve A Carrot Into A Rose as put out by her own Milk! label won the praises of Pitchfork as best new track that year. This new album scored a solid 8.6 rating from the Pitchforkers, almost as if it really, really got to them. Plus, there have been several mentions of musical goodliness from the usual suspects by now; Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The Guardian, NME, and beyond.
With every new artist that makes a splash like this, comparisons with those artists who have similarly blazed the trails of their times are unavoidable. You can choose your own here. But, my immediate reaction is that no one in recent memory has started where Courtney Barnett starts with on this tune, and on the record in general. Where you certainly can make those comparisons to what is happening on this song, somehow they are hollow when you try to impose them. This tune is bigger than all that, and so I suspect is Courtney Barnett.
At age 27, she seems like one of those “old souls” music reviewers are always talking about, seemingly connected by the same golden thread on which other artists that helped to make rock music what it is today can be strung. The good news with this tune and with Barnett’s work is that rock music doesn’t necessarily need to be reconstructed or re-contextualized to make it into the twenty-first century and sounding entirely fresh at the same time. The elements for greatness are there for the taking as they’ve always been. They just need someone to pull them together. The song remains the same after all.
So does the hero’s journey to the spotlight in this case; raw talent that mixes a love of language with the roar of guitars, art school attendance, personal stories that are cut up and retold in deadpan voice and a tumble of wordy imagery, borrowed money to start a label, tireless touring from her native Australia to SXSW and the Ellen show, and with tentative encounters with media ever since. Not a bad showing of ambition from someone who doesn’t consider herself ambitious in the traditional sense.
Despite the ambitious nature of what you’re hearing here, Barnett says that this song was written “at the last minute“, and only presented to her band in the studio in the same way in order to capture that thin, wild mercury sou… er, well, you know what I mean. I promised myself I’d leave the comparisons up to you, Good People. Even if this is the case, there is a quality in this song that makes it feel as though the whole thing is going to collapse any second, as the lines of the song careen into one another like cars in a highway pile-up. It is the sound of someone turning themselves inside out, flushing out their psyche of its toxins while never sounding self-pitying or indulgent while doing it, but sometimes even being funny without being aware of it.
Maybe too, it’s that this song is very localized in terms of its context. It was written in Melbourne and its location seems to be a part of its DNA. This is reinforced by Barnett’s delivery in her own voice, which is part of what ultimately scuppers all of our comparisons to what we’ve heard before. We get what she’s saying here in this song beyond any reference points external to the song itself. At very least, we can appreciate the rhythm of the language. What we do with it from there is our own business, which is what so many of the greats have taught us all along.
Learn more about Courtney Barnett at courtneybarnett.com.au
Check out the recorded version of this song and its video right here.