The album cover of Things Take Time, Take Time is apt: The blue splotches immerse you in all the different shades that Courtney Barnett is feeling, but the cover is also the least personal of all of her album covers to date. It gives you a peek into her emotions but holds you at an emotional distance unfamiliar to longtime Barnett fans.
The album as a whole has an apathy to it, signified by its sonic sparsity and electronic drums. While listening to prior albums of Barnett’s, you can picture Barnett raging and screaming on stage in jubilation; now, you just picture her sitting at a desk, writing these tunes somewhat listlessly. The album relies largely on her voice, a voice that is not what one would call “beautiful,” but one that still has a lot of expressive weight behind it. Here, there is a constant hopeless undertone to her singing — it is still expressive, just far more one-dimensional than her last albums. Songs that she uses a band sound in are her best work — “Write A List of Things To Look Forward To” and “Before You Gotta Go” are standouts in entirely different ways.
“Before You Gotta Go” delivers an honest message that many of us relate to (particularly that anxious handful in the crowd). The fear of an unfixable argument is balanced with the desire to affirm to your partner that you still love them no matter what. It is classically Barnett: an anxious lesson in emotional vulnerability, complete with attentive details like the near ridiculous desperation of asking her partner to “cut out caffeine” so that they don’t get anxious and argue. As a single, it’s fantastic. On the album, it blends into the soundscape of uncharacteristically subdued songs.
“Write A List of Things To Look Forward To” creates a burst of excitement that ripples through the whole album. Happier than most other Barnett tracks, it matches its name. With a catchy guitar riff, it leaves you excited that she’s excited, recreating that empathetic listening experience so typical of Barnett. These fantastic tracks, however, are offset by duller work like “Turning Green.” Most songs on the album aren’t bad, though, just grouped into a sea of similar-sounding work. Mostly, it is disappointing because we know what Courtney Barnett is capable of — and she is capable of so much more than this.
Past albums of Barnett’s claw at listeners until they are forced to respond, allowing their own emotions and frustration to bleed through. Things Take Time, Take Time just exists politely next to whoever is streaming it, as two strangers might in an elevator, but never asks to share an emotional space with the listener. Vulnerability is reflected in the lyrics rather than the music, but is still certainly present to some degree. Set against the backdrop of her recent divorce, the slight removedness feels more like self-protection, especially as she sings, “Babe I need remindin’ / I got feelings, too.” On “Oh The Night” she sings, “Oh the night goes so slowly / anytime I get low.” The rhyme scheme asks the listener to mentally fill in the blank of “low” with “lonely,” and you know the only reason the lyrics don’t include this word is that Barnett couldn’t quite admit her loneliness to herself. On “Splendour,” she watches something she loves dissolve in slow motion, losing the relationship as well as the person. Repeating the line “I’ll be seeing you,” a lyric from an old sentimental jazz standard, the song breaks your heart to a rock-waltz melody that would otherwise be slow dance-appropriate.
“Here’s The Thing” creates a seven-layered emotional cake. “Here’s the thing / I can’t stop thinking about you,” Barnett admits, but it is unclear whether this is a proclamation of love or nostalgia. The boundary between the two, it would seem, is thinner than one might think. Writing is the only thing that makes her feel better, but now she finds herself not knowing what to say. This whole thing she builds her life on is now terrifying, as she is unexpectedly uncertain in the face of it. It forces us to ask ourselves: What would we do if our usual mode of self-expression was taken away from us by some large event in our lives?
Courtney Barnett makes us ask questions like this. She has that special kick. She’s the real deal. And while that might not be entirely apparent on this album, I believe that we’ll see it again soon.
Daily Arts Writer Rosa Sofia Kaminski can be reached at email@example.com.