Courtney Barnett is the best friend everyone wishes they had — deadpan witty, desperately honest. Her songs grapple with the sorts of emotions familiar to the current generation, that balancing of self-doubt, anxiety, and the expectations for success in a world set against often overwhelming challenges.
“Hopefulessness” — the first track on her most recent record, Tell Me How You Really Feel, released last year — captures this well, a song about balancing a sense of hopelessness but maintaining a hopeful perspective. A generation buried in debt without the real opportunities to diminish that debt at a reasonable rate recognizes this sentiment quickly. A generation learning to balance societal expectations with reality has something of an emotional model in song here; not answers, just someone acknowledging the need for that balanced recognition.
Listen to Tell Me How You Really Feel on Spotify:
And Courtney and her band — a trio — took these songs and turned them into punk-rock, with wild, thrashing guitars and humming, thumping rhythms, shaking DC’s concrete jungle down to its swampy roots at The Anthem on June 19. They opened the show with the now-legendary “Avant Gardener,” her first hit from A Sea of Split Peas and a perfect example of Courtney’s gift for taking quotidian moments and concisely expressing something deeper, almost existential. It’s darkly funny on the surface, a song about gardening, seeing new experiences, and briefly falling in love with the paramedic saving her life in the midst of an asthma attack; she’s exploring the idea of escaping the quiet malaise of routine, using the asthma attack as a metaphor for anxiety, panic, and the tendency to internalize external events as a problem of the self.
Listen to A Sea of Split Peas on Spotify:
The band followed “Avant Gardener” with “City Looks Pretty,” a continued exploration of loneliness in the mundanity of living. A huge smile lit Courtney’s face as she tore into a massive solo away from the mic, hair writhing as whipped her head back and forth, her hand a wild blur as she fed the guitar and rippled feedback through the speakers. Throughout, Courtney showboated, raising her guitar into the air above her head, bringing it close to the ground, always maintaining a chaotic control.
“Small Talk” from the Everybody Here Hates You single followed, its awkward conversations matched to lurching, soaring guitars that mirror the terror of uncomfortable social expectations; it evokes the experience of going to a party with someone and that person leaving you alone to fend for yourself — always waiting for their return, just barely holding onto sanity, the conversations either flitting away or somewhere just outside the standards of propriety. “Need a Little Time” and “Nameless, Faceless” came next, the latter a fierce admonition of a misogynist society that fails to let women feel safe, that permits many (most) men to perpetrate acts of both physical and figurative violence without any punishment or blame.
They flashed a heavier punkiness with “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch,” an anthem for self-advocacy against assholes. They kept up the torrid pace with “Small Poppies,” after which she said, “Sometimes, it’s nice to let out a li’l frustration” before changing the tone and introducing “Depreston.” “Depreston” is a song about house-hunting, but not exactly; it deals more in the exploration of impermanence and being alive, of dying and living, all while bemoaning a tendency to think about these big-picture problems instead of the small-picture realities that the concerns we have aren’t always the right concerns for living. It emphasizes Courtney at her narrative, existential best, that incredible gift for taking the mundane and exploring what it is to be human.
Next came “Everybody Here Hates You,” released on Record Store Day, a song not quite finished in time for Tell Me How You Really Feel. She wrote in an email to the fans that the song felt too vulnerable originally, and added that not everybody actually hates you, encouraging fans to find support if their feelings match the song.
The predictable set ender — keeping in mind, they had an opening slot for The National — was “Pedestrian at Best,” its acid-sharp, familiar guitars over alliterative lyrics about fame and trying to be ordinary, ending in a maelstrom of sound as Courtney slammed her guitar on the ground, scraped the strings on the floor, ratcheted up the feedback, and walked offstage to a wailing wall of noise.
This was truly and absolutely a badass set. I can’t wait to see her again.
Here are a few photos from the show at The Anthem on June 19, 2019. All photos courtesy and copyright of Matt Ruppert.