Courtney Barnett’s second album begins: “Y’know what they say / No one’s born to hate / We learn it somewhere along the way.” Paraphrased from Nelson Mandela, that line from the opener “Hopefulessness” sets the tone for the rest of Tell Me How You Really Feel, a triumphant return after her debut LP, Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit and a 2017 collaboration with singer-songwriter Kurt Vile.
Tell Me still carries Barnett’s signature rambling, deadpan delivery, but with a darker flavor than her previous releases. Through thirty-seven minutes Barnett holds court with her friends, lovers and enemies with strength and piercing wit, touching on issues like feminism and isolation with a noisy rock edge. At its base, the Aussie songwriter’s sophomore effort is a record about truth in all its forms, be it hard to swallow or written on the wall.
Beyond these subtle changes from her past work, it’s all but obvious that Tell Me is a cathartic release for Barnett. Those already fans of the artist are probably more familiar with a laid-back, sardonic approach present in earlier songs like “Avant Gardener,” in which she narrates her own asthma attack, and “History Eraser,” about the confusing beginnings of love. This record is notably more pissed-off than Barnett’s first, both attached and apathetic to her experiences and relationships as a woman in the world.
She navigates feedback-laced webs of sound to push through a message of individualism and transparency, most noticeable on anthems “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch,” taking on the virgin-whore complex one guitar stroke at a time. Nonetheless, the songwriter manages to maintain her classic dark humor throughout the album, even making a song titled “Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Self Control” witty with lines like “And indecision rots / like a bag of last week’s meat.” Barnett might not be funny on this record, but she sure is honest. And what is more hilarious than the realities of life?
The artist focuses in on this honesty throughout the album’s first single “Nameless, Faceless,” the title a nod to Nirvana’s “Endless, Nameless” and an angered response to the unjust realities of being a woman. She references iconic feminist author Margaret Atwood in the chorus with the sharp-tongued line “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them / Women are afraid that men will kill them” with a sharp tongue. The song is big, headstrong and truly rocks hard — it’s a women’s anthem without any frills, and certainly no beating around the bush.
Though much of Tell Me How You Really Feel is hard-edged, songs like the album’s crown jewel “City Looks Pretty,” “Charity” and others are almost happy-sounding. They attack tough issues of isolation, imposter syndrome and unhappiness, but Barnett’s signature storytelling and musical prowess manages to flip them into danceable rock bangers. It forces an audience to recognize the songs’ lyrics as they enjoy the music, which is valuable in itself; Barnett isn’t hiding anything from her listeners, proving that joy and anger can coexist, and even create some really fantastic music. At the end of the day, all the singer wants to do is “Walk through the park in the dark.” In this record, Barnett poses a question we should all think about: Why can’t she?