A lot has been made out of Courtney Barnett’s apparent discomfort at being admired as someone of genuine societal value. In “Pedestrian At Best,” arguably her foremost song and one of the very, very best cuts of 2015, she insists “put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you.” The fact remains, however, that the rash of Album of the Year nominations being hurled in her direction this December means she may just be on a higher platform than she or anybody expected.
Not that it has been an overnight success. Her debut EP, 2011’s I’ve Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris helped place her at the forefront of the vibrant and enviable Melbourne scene of which she has now become the effective golden child and figurehead. Beyond Australia’s south coast it has been a triumph of social media and word-of-mouth to the point that the March release of her first album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, was awaited by a global cult following. The overwhelmingly positive reviews culminating in a rather heavy collection of gongs from a variety of Australian music awards, in the process ruining the predicted love-in for Tame Impala’s Currents.
Even before the all-conquering success, though, Barnett was already communicating a weary disillusionment of her new-found status as a 21st century, grunge-and-indie offspring of Patti Smith. On “Avant Gardener,” the 2013 horticultural heart attack number which gained Barnett her first significant international attention, she nonchalantly drawls that a “paramedic thinks I’m clever ’cause I play guitar / I think she’s clever ’cause she stops people dying.” It’s this attitude that seemed to primarily inform the Courtney Barnett that I saw live at the O2 Forum in Kentish Town last week, with only a self-aware but not self-doubting saunter and hair-ruffle her only actions between taking the stage and commencing into opening song “Avant Gardener.”
Clearly assured in her unquestionable abilities as a singer and, particularly, as a guitarist, Barnett performs with a confidence that’s not a million miles away from swagger, but between songs will occasionally mumble an awkward, almost guilt-ridden “thanks” that sounds as if she’s apologising for convincing people to go and see her perform. To some, this may translate into an artist “not in possession of a magnetic stage presence,” as claimed in The Guardian, but Mick Jagger isn’t what you want from a clever, genuinely funny wordsmith who interprets their world through a deadpan detachment. Instead, she’s a charming host in command of something I’d call “slackerisma.” By the encore, which began with an enjoyable cover of “Know Your Product” by seminal Aussie punks The Saints, she was in complete control of a captivated audience, even when her acclaimed lyrics were often lost in translation in a live setting.
Were it not for Kendrick Lamar’s critical juggernaut To Pimp A Butterfly, the sublime Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit would have found itself at the pinnacle of an awful lot more “Best Album” lists, but for any listener with a fondness for poetry, humour and the occasional dose of chest-out rock and roll, Barnett is a revelation – and yes, in a live setting as well as on record.