Guest reviewer: Myles McGuire
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Courtney Barnett occupies a strange space in the landscape of modern music. She is, in essence, an average Joe: equipped with a wanly pretty voice and songwriting banal to the point of profundity. She waxes lyrical on subjects ranging from money troubles to dirtbag lovers, composes ballad-style tales of urban malaise and, despite having been featured everywhere from Pitchfork to The Ellen DeGeneres Show, her ordinariness never comes across as studied.
She’s not ordinary, of course, as anyone who has listened to her stunningly intricate body of work can attest. She’s a poet, compared often and not without reason to Bob Dylan, bent on dissecting the minutiae of everyday life and repackaging it into inexplicably danceable melodies. Live, she is a force of nature: the wry narrator of her Double EP, and this year’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit is abruptly transformed into a fully-fledged rock star.
Playing at the HiFi in Brisbane, Barnett was solidly supported, especially by power goth outfit Teeth & Tongue. Lead vocalist Jess Cornelius’ Beach House-esque vocals float dreamily over the slick guitar and synths of her bandmates, lending their disco-inflected pop a layer of theatrical poignancy (despite Cornelius’ disclaimer that one track was “a bit emo,” their set was underpinned by a sparkly playfulness, culminating with a cheeky midsong rendition of The Beach Boy’s Kokomo.)
But the evening was unquestionably Barnett’s, who from arriving onstage commanded the rammed 1200 capacity building with her trademark, professional casualness. Efficiently curating the strongest tracks from her studio releases, the need for small talk was eliminated by the frankness of her lyrics: delivered clearly in her deadpan style despite the additional clamour of her live band. From the flirtily buoyant Aqua Profunda! to the sardonic Dead Fox, to the unbearably beautiful Depreston, Barnett doesn’t let the songs speak for themselves so much as she inhabits them: creating in four minute shards astonishingly nuanced portraits of suburban hipsterdom. Live, Barnett’s other strengths are showcased, and in the three-piece incarnation of her band, she takes over guitar duties with a finesse that is secondary in her recordings.
The thing is, nobody at a Courtney Barnett gig is not having the time of their lives. Most people who have encountered her have made up their minds within thirty seconds of listening to one of her tracks: either dismissing her as boring or embracing her as their prophet. Those who purchased tickets to her sold-out show are, presumably, in the latter category: fans eager to dance, sway and generally gawk at somebody so close to being like them, and yet so clearly on another plane.
One of my coworkers recently revealed that she cut her own hair to look more like Barnett. Another friend, who saw her perform an unplugged set at Jet Black Cat earlier in the day, repeated several times throughout the evening that she just wanted to be her. Like Kurt Cobain or Taylor Swift, Barnett’s appeal to her fans lies in her relatability: the combination of charisma and showmanship that allows people to believe she is just like them. Returning alone to the stage for one of the increasingly rare encores that seems entirely unforced, Barnett seemed genuinely humbled by the people who had come to worship her: and, with banging closer Pedestrian At Best, succeeded in reminding each of them of the extraordinariness of being ordinary.