“Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you,” sings Courtney Barnett in the song Pedestrian at Best, but so far her own prophecy hasn’t panned out like that.
The sentiment might’ve worked when she was a teenager flitting around the Melbourne DIY punk scene, or even after releasing her earlier alt-rock indie EPs I’ve Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris and How to Carve a Carrot Into a Rose, but she’s transcended Aussie slacker cult hero status.
Barnett’s last headline gig in Dublin was in Whelan’s in 2015, then she followed that by a joyously raucous early evening sunshine set at Longitude the following summer, coming to the side of the stage after to meet a few giddy fans who were blown away. (Including me, after being transported back to teenage grunge years and 90s festivals like Sunstroke at Dalymount Park).
This time round, she’s upgraded to the Olympia, and on this extended world tour she’s sold out the Roundhouse in London and played two nights at Sydney Opera House, and over the last few years she’s appeared on Jimmy Kimmel and Ellen. Her 2015 debut album Sometimes I sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit was nominated for eight ARIAs in Australia and won four.
Ever the DIY artist, she even won best cover art for her own album sleeve, a crude drawing of a chair on a rug. She was also nominated for a Grammy as Best New Artist at the Grammys, but lost to Meghan Trainor – a real wtf moment even in a history of the Grammys being out of touch.
The earlier 90s reference is hard to avoid when discussing Barnett. The obvious points are Pavement, The Breeders or Sonic Youth at their poppiest. Nirvana is another obvious nod, from her astutely shrugged elevation of the mundane, to the cruel self-deprecation in her lyrics. Even her left-handed guitar mannerisms and lurching stagger recalls Kurt’s live intensity.
Like Cobain, Barnett offsets her introspective themes with immediate hooks and dry wit and wordplay, with evocative song titles: Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go To the Party; Hopefulessness; Avant Gardener and Depreston – an ode to the Melbourne district Preston.
Barnett says there’s always been a “curve of temper” in her songs. On Nameless, Faceless, she takes on asshole lad rock trolls with the line, “He said, ‘I could eat a bowl of alphabet soup and spit out better words than you.’ But you didn’t.”
Nameless, Faceless is one of the standouts on her 2018 album Tell Me How You Really Feel, which builds on the foundation of her debut and kicks against the pricks with a bit more venom. I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch is a noise-rock is a snarling head kick as vicious as anything her fellow Courtney would’ve written for Hole at their peak, while loneliness and inertia is tackled on City Looks Pretty with the disarmingly honest line, “Friends treat you like a stranger and strangers treat you like their best friend… oh well.”
Earlier in the tour, Barnett stood by her new album by opening gigs playing it start to finish, in order. She’s still playing the whole thing, mingled with her other choice cuts. But if you’re blessed with a song book that has no real duds, you’re onto a winner already, no matter the running order.
- Courtney Barnett plays the Olympia in Dublin tonight (Monday)