Few songwriters capture the power and the humor of the mundane as well as Courtney Barnett. On her first two releases, the smashing double EP “A Sea of Split Peas” from 2013 and the uneven “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit” from 2015, that seemed to be her calling — taking droll account of the small crises we face and the subtle personality differences we marry into. In language stylized but seemingly extemporaneous, and from a perspective of ironic distance, she brought us into the ordinary but laden moments of her life.
On her new album, “Tell Me How You Really Feel,” it’s as if Barnett is taking the advice of the title. There’s a more direct quality to her lyrics this time around, and a more honest quality to her delivery, even when she takes on themes she has already addressed in earlier songs — being on the road, dealing with loneliness, looking for home, insecurity, and writer’s block. Her emotions are less muted by clever lines here, less protected by her sardonic talk-singing. On “Sometimes I Sit and Think,” she wearily complained about hearing her friend’s stories again and again; now, in a sweetly supportive song called “Sunday Roast,” she is more in touch with a deeper self-awareness and a longer view, closer to what she really feels, as she sings, “I know all your stories/ But I’ll listen to them again.”
On her remarkable 2017 collaboration with Kurt Vile, “Lotta Sea Lice,” the pair — whose phrasing and love of pretty hooks are perfectly matched — sang about incessant travel as disorienting but in some way charming. On “Tell Me,” Barnett is willing to be more vulnerable as she notes, in “City Looks Pretty,” “Friends treat you like a stranger and/ Strangers treat you like their best friend, oh well.” The openness and exhausted anger — they’re on the super catchy “Charity,” too — carry with them an air of catharsis and relief. On the tuneful “Nameless, Faceless,” she goes after Internet trolls with a biting takedown and a melody that recall early Liz Phair.
The bottom line is that nearly every song on the new Courtney Barnett album has something to recommend it — a familiar melody that takes distinctive turns, a lyric that grows deeper with each listening, strong backup from a band led by Barnett’s rough-hewn guitar riffs. No, it’s not the Great Perfect Courtney Barnett Album I’ve been waiting for since first hearing her. But given the promise of her earlier work, it’s a thrill to hear her continue to move forward.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.