5 Times Courtney Barnett Is Talking or Singing

There’s no singer-songerwriter with greater mastery of the craft than Sydney’s Courtney Barnett. She creates vivid songs with plenty of flourish and none of the “writerly” trappings that make stuff annoying. Also she takes no shit!

But along with the inevitable ambiguities of a well-written pop song, Barnett brings us another mystery: Is she singing or talking? Like, either generally or specfically. Any clarity is appreciated at this point, so let’s dive in.

EXHIBIT A: Are You Looking After Yourself

Pointedly titled without a quesiton mark, this one opens up with some classic “Are these musical notes?” type talking. That uncertainty is buoyed by the fact that she seems to be reciting some kind of voicemail.

This brings us to an important point: it seems like a not-great thing to be in a Courtney Barnett song. Her Sahara-dry delivery turns harmless impressions into devestating burns, and the lyrical observations! Diamond cutter sharp. Imagine if you said something dumb to her. Just pack up. Move. Get out of town.

Anyway, then the chorus kicks it and we have some bonafide SINGING. With HARMONIES! Talk about versatility.

VERDICT: Both

EXHIBIT B: Elevator Operator

This one is misleading. It kicks off in double time, and while Barnett’s clipped, precise vocal sounds like the confident oratory of an aggressively bored narrator, it is in fact the confident singing of an aggressively bored narrator.

Notes. She’s singing them.

VERDICT: Singing

[The Russian judge disagrees so I have him dragged away by goons while the ovation goes long because the APPLAUSE sign is broken.]

EXHIBIT C: Avant Gardener

First off, this video’s great.

Now we’re talking! Literally! This engrossing and hilariously ho-hum story is delivered with a cadance that’s always on the verge of a melody. But no, instead, we get mumbled half-notes and full measure half-sighs as she delivers Subterranian Homesick Blues if it was about doing chores and then having a panic attack. Whole thing rules.

This also seems to be her biggest hit? Hard to tell I can’t read Austrailian.

VERDICT: Talking

EXHIBIT D: City Looks Pretty

A clear example of CB bringing high quality, straightforward rock vocals of the singing variety. This is a great opportunity to call out her band, perfectly anchored by a rhythm section made up of two dudes who are hilariously named Bones Sloane and Dave Mudie.

Pretty much every arrangement this group builds clearly connotes some kind of feeling–whether it’s straightforward punk, folk storytelling, psychic breakdown or various etc. Through it all, the arrangement and playing always reinforces one sound with one purpose.

Also Bones and Mudie would be a great South Carolina buddy cop duo who have a side hustle operating their own pro bono law firm for the wrongfully accused. Posting this counts as copyright.

VERDICT: Singing

Image for post
Image for post
”Bones, Mudie–arrest those pups.”

Exhibit E: New Speedway Boogie

This extremely kickass Grateful Dead cover starts off with some clear singing, but it’s the kind where you’re sorta yawning and suddenly hit the perfect note. Highly suspect!

Then again, when each verse slides into the pre chorus (or whatever), it’s hard to deny that our hero is carrying a melody over those quicksand harmonies. I would argue that the “One way or another” refrain, along with the nearly-spoken but effortlessly in-key “This darkness got to give” followup distills Courtney’s sing-talking essence into one moment: Kinda sorta both? But man, the way she’s framing the lyrics. Also isn’t that band great?! What were we talking about?

VERDICT: Both. But also whatever.

i wanna live in a lighthouse

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store