“Sometimes I get sad/It's not all that bad,” Courtney Barnett sings on “City Looks Pretty,” a song from Tell Me How You Really Feel. It's a simplistic summation of both her current state of mind and her uncanny ability to pair close-to-the-bone lyrics with joyously infectious power-pop melodies. The album is nowhere near as flippant as that couplet might suggest though. Barnett's sophomore effort is a striking manifestation of gnawing anxieties, both internal and external; it may lack some of the instant affability of 2015's Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, but that's by design.
On a purely compositional level, the tonal shift between Tell Me How You Really Feel and Barnett's debut album isn't all that severe, and the singer-songwriter's impossibly effortless tunesmithing remains a preternatural force. But this time, it's accompanied by heavier subjects, more personal confessionals, and a sense that Barnett's cheery melodies exist solely to keep her from being crushed by the weight of the world.
For someone who once admitted, “Every day I have some sort of breakdown,” the public pressures of even indie-rock stardom—whatever that entails nowadays—clearly wears on Barnett's mind. She lays that struggle bare in “City Looks Pretty”: “Friends treat you like a stranger and/Strangers treat you like their best friend, oh well.” That's to say nothing of now having to live up to those suddenly friendly strangers' rabid expectations. “I don't know anything!” she declares on the self-consciously titled “Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence,” as if to deter anyone looking to her for wisdom.
Barnett's impossibly effortless tunesmithing remains a preternatural force on Tell Me How You Really Feel.
Whereas Barnett's introversion once came across as a cute affectation on songs like “Nobody Really Cares If You Don't Go to the Party,” here it sounds more like a clinical condition: “The city looks pretty when you been indoors/For 23 days I've ignored all your phone calls,” she sings on “City Looks Pretty.” The way her upbeat, bounding rhythm guitars suddenly melt into the song's slow, hazy outro serves as a reminder of how quickly that emotional switch can flip. Barnett used to mine her problems for dark comedy, but here she sounds like she's writing purely as a form of self-therapy.
A similar sense of malaise permeates almost all of Tell Me How You Really Feel, bubbling just below the veneer of poppy melodies and bright, chunky guitars. This is especially audible in Barnett's singing style: While her Aussie drawl retains its laconic twang, she sounds more withdrawn, eschewing the snotty sneer of “Pedestrian at Best” and the ecstatic energy of “Elevator Operator.” So even when the music suggests other moods—as she does on the bubbly “Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence” and the confident-sounding “Charity”—it belies Barnett's uneasy state of mind.
That doesn't mean that she's given up on the world. For Barnett, inspiration to break free of her personal demons comes from her socio-political convictions. An outspoken feminist, she delivers a deliciously withering put-down of some pitiable neckbeard on “Nameless, Faceless”: “Man, you're kidding yourself if you think/The world revolves around you.” But even as she delivers Tell Me How You Really's most self-assured barbs, she reveals the dread lurking beneath them: “I hold my keys/Between my fingers.” The next track, “I'm Not Your Mother, I'm Not Your Bitch,” is a barefaced anti-misogynistic rant. “I try my best to be patient/But I can only put up with so much,” Barnett snarls, a sentiment underscored by the squealing punk backing track that sounds like a deliberate effort to ignore her natural melodic sensibilities. Why bother trying to please? She's had enough of this shit.