Courtney Barnett Isn’t Clowning on “Pedestrian at Best”

Marc Hogan

By Marc Hogan

Lead News Writer
on 01.30.15 in News

One of the first words associated with Courtney Barnett was “slacker.” She used the tag on her since-discarded Bandcamp page, and Mike Powell picked up on it in a 2013 Pitchfork track review that would’ve been many listeners’ introduction to the Australian singer, songwriter and guitarist. Powell also gave us the enviably apt phrase “wordy irreverence,” and that’s going to be worth keeping in mind as other descriptors — charming, clever — pile up on the way to Barnett’s proper debut album, the verbosely titled (deep breath) Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit.

Her music is charming and clever, but what sets Barnett apart is that flippant nonchalance, both in her acutely observed lyrics and her noise-mangled guitar freakouts. In a sense, she brings the Australian tradition of witty lyricism found in the Lucksmiths or acknowledged influence Darren Hanlon to a strain of fuzzed-out American indie rock that had in recent years largely downplayed witty lyrics. But the x factor is how she comes across as someone who — and I don’t know if they say this Down Under — DGAF.

Other songs on the new record and her recent collection The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas better capture various facets of Barnett’s appeal, but the best distillation so far of that star-like brashness comes in “Pedestrian at Best.” It’s only fitting that she mentioned a youthful Nirvana phase in a recent Rolling Stone interview, because the spirit of those ultimate-slacker era idols hovers over this song in both its scraggly-catchy soft-loud salvos and its bluntly ambivalent lyrical sentiments: “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you/ Tell me I’m exceptional, I promise to exploit you.” So, it’s a win-win, then.

The way Barnett drags out the word “fu-uh-uh-uh-nny” on the chorus here would work as a hook for plenty of songs without the clever charm (and wordy irreverence) of these verses, which are full of self-doubt, contradictory swagger and Freud. She plays a clown in the video below, but really she’s “a fake,” “a phony” and, in a non sequitur that always makes me grin, “a Scorpio.” I don’t know anything about astrology, but given the fully formed presentation of Barnett on “Pedestrian at Best”— like the rest of us pedestrians, but at our best; she’s at once seizing and sabotaging her moment in the spotlight— a sign of the horoscope might well be as useful a place as any to start from now on when approaching Barnett’s music. Or I might just be slacking. (Or both! Is it relevant that I’m a Libra?)

Scroll down for the cover art and tracklist.

Courtney Barnett, 'Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I just Sit'

Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (March 24, Mom + Pop)

1. Elevator Operator
2. Pedestrian at Best
3. An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in NY)
4. Small Poppies
5. Depreston
6. Aqua Profunda!
7. Dead Fox
8. Nobody Really Cares if You Don’t Go to the Party
9. Debbie Downer
10. Kim’s Caravan
11. Boxing Day Blues