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April 14, 2024

New Courtney Barnett album presents a mixed bag of meditations on love and isolation

By ANDREW SHIBUYA | November 20, 2021


Andy Witchger/CC BY-SA 2.0

Courtney Barnett released her third studio album, Things Take Time, Take Time, this month.

On the cover of Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett’s third studio album are nine blue paint splotches. The splotches, all various shades of blue, might be interpreted as a gesture to the album’s portrayal of different flavors of sadness or perhaps the raw emotion contained within these 10 songs. However, with Barnett’s Things Take Time, Take Time, the songs and album as a whole bleed into a singular sleepy color that betrays the range of blues on its cover.

On this record, Barnett seems to have endeavored to portray and paint stills of pandemic life at their most intimate and tiny. Alongside laments of a burning world, she sings of children learning to ride bikes or of cold feet in bed, often in intimate and beautiful detail. These songs strive to detail the same themes that many can likely recall from the past two years of pandemic life: yearning, confinement, hopelessness and a failure of completion.

It is unfortunate, though, that the album also brings to mind another theme from my pandemic experience: boredom. While the pandemic turned the world on its head, Barnett’s writing and songs feel like something familiar and not in a particularly favorable way. One fundamental issue I had with the record was that the lyrical gems sprinkled throughout are inundated by platitudes as in the chorus of album opener “Rae Street”: “Well time is money / And money is no man’s friend.” Such platitudes often cause otherwise decent songs to blur together from one to the next, with no respite from the sparse, mundane and muted world that Barnett has crafted here.

At times, though, Barnett does have a stunning ability to instantaneously zoom out from intimate yet restrained moments to a universal scale, as in the single “If I Don’t Hear From You Tonight,” where she couples stars dying in the night sky with unrequited love. It is places like these where the album is most successful as Barnett escapes the mundane and manages to transcend isolation and its monotony in favor of warmer intimate moments.

For example, album centerpiece and highlight “Turning Green” is Barnett at her best and a fantastic example of what this album could have been. Over twangy guitar and a programmed drum loop, Barnett sings of spring and what seems to be a blossoming romance. Like many songs on this album, “Turning Green'' does not rely on the expected verse-chorus structure, instead opting for simply three verses. It ought to be noted, too, that the guitar solo at the end of this song is fantastic and undoubtedly the best moment on the album.

Sadly though, moments of greatness like that are few and far between, and, like my own quarantine experience, the album seems as though it would have benefited from more novelty and variation. Many of the instrumentations, coproduced by Barnett and Stella Mozgawa, are bland and straightforward, often sounding stale, or perhaps more generously, tired. I hope it is not too harsh to say that even Barnett sounds bored in her vocal performance at times as in the first verse of “Sunfair Sundown.” With either a lackadaisical arrangement or vocal performance, and sometimes both, many of these songs feel as though they are missing something or as though they are still unfinished.  Like the paint splotches on the cover, only the raw materials are evident here while the bigger picture remains out of sight.

And though there is not necessarily a lack of cohesion within the album, or necessarily a need for this “bigger picture,” what is here is not the most satisfying or fulfilling. There is rarely a standout moment from the primarily homogenous blob of coffee-shop music, and this seems to me to be the biggest failure of the record. There is little challenge here, with the album consisting of nothing that you have not heard before and certainly nothing that Barnett herself has not done prior.

But to take a step back, Things Take Time, Take Time is not wholly a failure or necessarily a bad album: It’s simply boring. And this should not be too harsh of an indictment as it was written and recorded at a time when many of our lives were closely resembling each other’s, and the record effectively serves as a memorial to early quarantine life. However, whether that is indeed something that ought to be memorialized or if this album even succeeds at that are different questions entirely. And perhaps while not the most daring or exciting record, with its small moments of warmth and beauty, it is not the worst thing to have playing in the background with a cup of coffee on a sleepy Sunday morning.

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