There’s no denying that Courtney Barnett is fully invested in her craft. After forming Milk! Records with Jen Cloher back in 2012, Barnett would release a string of successful EPs via the label, which also spotlighted emerging artists like Jade Imagine and Fraser A Gorman. One track from her EP How To Carve A Carrot Into A Rose, ‘Avant Gardener’, captivated the world upon release in 2013, well and truly putting Barnett on the map and hinting at the full-length effort that was soon to follow.
During 2013 Barnett began writing songs for her first full length album, finding inspiration from traveling and accumulating stories from her world tours. Her debut album was recorded during eight days at Melbourne’s Head Gap recording studio with the world-renowned producer Burke Reid, who previously worked with acts such as Peter Garrett and Liam Finn.
For these sessions, Barnett employed a unique recording process where she’d show the songs to the band a week before recording, capturing the ensuing spontaneity and seeing her and her collaborators – featuring bassist Bones Sloane, drummer Dave Mudie and former Drones member Dan Luscombe on guitar – work on arrangements off the cuff to obtain the record’s raw, intimate vibe.
Titled Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, Barnett’s debut was later released via Milk! Records in April 2015, with Barnett stating that the album title came from a phrase she saw on a poster hanging in her grandma’s bathroom.
The opening track of the album ‘Elevator Operator’ reminded fans once again of the wit of Barnett’s lyrics and her penchant for relatable storytelling. The track makes reference to a bevy of Melbourne locations – way too many to list here – and was coupled with a star-studded music video released the following year, acting as the perfect starting point for her debut.
We then got the first single from the album; ‘Pedestrian at Best’. In an interview after the album’s release, Barnett stated that this song was only written moments before recording, with the final product being the first time she actually sang the lyrics aloud. She states this is why “the syllables (in ‘Pedestrian At Best’) – they’re all wrong” Mid 2015, ‘Pedestrian At Best’ beat many worldwide hits to come out at number 1 on Rolling Stone’s Songs of the Year list.
‘An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless In New York)’ comprises track three, which allows us a further journey into the Aussie’s songwriting brain, sitting in a waiting room in New York sparking the idea behind this track. It’s a deep dive, the song imitating a monologue, which seems to work well with the slower, folksy stylings of this song.
This slow, stream of consciousness songwriting style leads into the next track ‘Small Poppies’, a seven minute expansion of the Australian notion of ‘small poppy syndrome’. The song is all about trying to bring people back to earth (figuratively) and how to deal with those who have strong opinions about things, while the driving, rocky instrumental breakdown of the song would become a seminal moment in her live sets to come.
‘Depreston’ marks one of the record’s most hard-hitting and emotional moments, as Barnett sings of her and her partner’s move out to the Melbourne suburb of Preston, acting as a harrowing recount of the experience of inspecting a deceased estate. ‘Depreston’ is considered by many as one of Barnett’s crowning achievements as a songwriter, with her performances of the track on the US TV circuit further enshrining its excellence.
‘Aqua Profunda’ marks a halfway point for the LP, and brings us back to the hard rock genre that began the album. Its surfy / summery vibes matches the song’s topic, it’s about a character (possibly Barnett) trying to impress a fellow swimmer at Fitzroy Pool – yet another classic Melbourne haunt.
‘Dead Fox’ is a quirky look at Courtney’s views on the world, referencing everything from pesticide-sprayed fruit and veg to the Holbrook overpass on the Hume Highway. Barnett spoke at length in an interview about what this song means to her, saying that ‘Dead Fox’ “touches on problems regarding consumer choice, I try and support the local shops, it’s about big business taking the small business.” At the time she wrote the song, she states there was much in the news about the culling of sharks, which is why it made its way onto the track.
Track eight is a sublime introvert’s anthem; ‘Nobody Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party’, which isn’t about a fear of missing out, but rather a fear of going out, making excuses so you can stay home. Then the album comes to a close with ‘Kim’s Caravan’ and ‘Boxing Day Blues’. This brings us back to the slow, folksy feel we got at earlier points in the album, they are both somewhat darker songs.
‘Kim’s Caravan’ was concerned by Barnett’s concern for the Great Barrier Reef, according to an interview it’s “an apocalyptic tale of our world.” As you’d expect, ‘Boxing Day Blues’ is about a sad incident that occurred to Barnett during Christmas a few years prior to this song coming out. The track was also complemented with ‘Boxing Day Blues (Revisited)’, released in 2015 via Jack White’s Third Man Records. According to Barnett, the release was meant to act as a follow up to the last song on her album, and almost serves as an alternative ending to the record in some respects.
After release, Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit gained a heap of critical acclaim, with many critics ranking it as one of the strongest albums of the year and subsequently one of the greatest albums of the entire decade. It shot up to number one on a heap of American Billboard charts, such as Top Rock Albums, Top Folk Albums, and top Vinyl Albums, and proved popular album at that year’s ARIA Awards, netting four wins out of a whopping eight nominations. The best part of all? Barnett was only just getting started.
Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit can be purchased via Milk! Records here.