Courtney Barnett proved herself a charming purveyor of unkempt indie rock with her 2013 EP A Sea of Split Peas. In a tossed-off rock-n’-roll vernacular that shares a chromosome or two with Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, she wove stories of drunken revelry and paeans to unlikely masturbation material with a photographer’s eye for detail. “I’m not suicidal, just idling insignificantly,” Barnett sings on “Elevator Operator,” the opening track of her full-length debut, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. It serves as a succinct thesis for an album concerned more with making sense of the trivialities of everyday life than with cathartic bloodletting.
The album isn’t a leap forward so much as a sharpening of Barnett’s observational wit. “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party” is a jaunty anthem for antisocial homebodies, “Elevator Operator” is an optimistic parable that tackles unsatisfactory employment, and “An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York)” is a wistful tribute to the melancholic loneliness of hotel stays. The former begins with Barnett rattling off the myriad distractions on her mind (smoothies, movies, swimming at the pool) in a bouncy conversational tone before launching into the beautiful chorus, delivered with just the perfect sense of resigned longing: “I’m thinking of you too.”
Barnett’s songs also mine the comedic: In “Aqua Profunda!,” she attempts to impress the swimmer in the next lane before nearly drowning. As she comes to, she notices the object of her affection is nowhere to be found. Something in Barnett’s sighing delivery indicates, with admiration now off the table, that she would have happily settled for some pity. But despite the narrative being worthy of a George Constanza subplot, Barnett isn’t attempting a Seinfeldian “Album About Nothing” here; her zoomed-in personal anecdotes serve as a springboard to some resonant themes.
“Depreston” begins as a tale of touring a low-budget deceased estate before Barnett, noticing the dusty artifacts from the life of the old woman who lived there, starts ruminating about the fleeting nature of life versus the relative permanence of objects. Dead seals and the deteriorating barrier reef serve as metaphors for an individual’s inconsequentiality (“Don’t ask me what I really mean/I am just a reflection of what you wanna see/So take what you want from me”) on the forebodingly bluesy “Kim’s Caravan,” while the guitar stabs of “Pedestrian at Best” act as the soundtrack to Barnett deflating the balloon of her own hype (“Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you/Tell me I’m exceptional, I promise to exploit you”).
Barnett’s band lends these story-songs a live-feeling, loose accompaniment that pulls indiscriminately from the annals of rock history: “Dead Fox” rips Revolver’s lighthearted reverse guitar leads; “Pedestrian at Best” references the syncopated thrashing of Nirvana; and, were it not for Barnett’s imperfect drawl, “Depreston” could be mistaken for an early Eagles song. In another band’s hands, the meandering vamped blues of songs like “Small Poppies” might be dismissed as mere background music for Barnett’s uniquely literate screeds, but the musicians have a jazz ensemble’s instinct for creating a natural musical conversation with its featured soloist. When Barnett lilts into that song’s trailing-off chorus, the band is ready to answer with knotty guitar figures and dramatic false crescendos.
For an album that deals in low stakes, Sometimes I Sit and Think finds Barnett hitting some incredible highs. Without sounding labored, she creates an impeccably honest world rife with humor, self-deprecation, and heartbreak. On closer “Boxing Day Blues,” the singer displays a startling economy of language: “I know that I let you down/You’re not keen on what you found/When’s the funeral? Do you want me to come?” It’s this gift for unadorned, unaffected communication, tempered with an earned sense of irony and a lot of heart, that sets Barnett apart from her peers.