Courtney Barnett may have been barely an adolescent at the height of the grunge movement, but you wouldn’t know it upon hearing her music. Calm and lackadaisical, she sounds like a female 21st century’s answer to Nirvana. Barnett’s not strung out and thrashing, mind you, but she does possess that same defiant cool. She’s a witty kid with a penchant for loose-fitting tees who sings matter-of-factly about sniffing glue, not being individual enough and the occasional panic attack. Still, there’s a wit and maturity to her lyrics that’s earned her Bob Dylan comparisons, among plenty other accolades.
Unlike Dylan and Kurt Cobain, though, Barnett’s whimsical and even goofy. She’s bold and relaxed enough to be purely confessional, which makes for nonchalant admittances of masturbation in her lyrics—”It felt wrong/But it didn’t take long” (from her song, “Lance, Jr.”)—and lyrics that spill out in what sounds like artful streams of consciousness (see: “Avant Gardener”).
Such self-assurance has earned Barnett a following that spans from her native Australia to right here in Chicago, one that was solid enough to sell out her show at the Empty Bottle on February 18. It should also be noted that Barnett has managed to garner a considerable male fan base, which, for a female singer who doesn’t trade in her sexuality, has become somewhat of a feat.
With just one double EP under her belt, Barnett didn’t have a lot of material to work with. However, she didn’t exactly need to pick and choose—every track in her catalog could easily stand on its own.
Barnett started off the set a little quietly, her laid-back vocals not quite a match for the rollicking guitars at first. The mellow “Out Of The Woodwork” was sung tentatively for the volume of the band. But Barnett picked up speed, making for a full-on anthem when it came to “Are You Looking After Yourself?,” a song about being a young, struggling musician. Guitars were shred; heads were bobbing and the chorus, “I don’t need no nine- to-five/Telling me that I’m alive,” felt especially astute. “History Eraser” was another unanimous win, with rapid-fire lyrics shot out among raging guitars.
“Avant Gardener,” arguably the singer’s biggest hit, was another well-received number, although the meandering quality that defines the track was a bit lost in the overwrought guitars. No matter—the majority of the show was sufficiently jammy, even if it did clock in at about 45 minutes. Barnett decided to bless the crowd with a new single for her encore: a reflective song called “Depreston” (a play on the name of a town in Melbourne). The song was pretty and melancholy, and an assurance that we can continue to expect great things from this unassuming Aussie.
Photos by Tajette O’Halloran