Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit opens with a profile of a semi-neurotic man with no fear of heights named Oliver Paul. And while it’s ostensibly about Paul, the real interest lies in the nameless woman who joins him on the roof. She’s the stereotypical plastic woman, and while she suggests, “don’t jump little boy,” she doesn’t realize that those were never his intentions. But wait; was she up there to kill herself?
The story in the song, “Elevator Operator,” is interesting because plastic lady is projecting his demise, perhaps because of an unhappiness in her own life. As the elevator operator, Paul will literally be elevated, while Botox woman (making the same projection she does) will only be going down. Throughout the album, Courtney Barnett obsesses with the neuroses of the ups and the downs, the big decisions and the little misconceptions that come with relationships.
“Small Poppies” provides a skeleton key to this theme. The title is a play on Tall Poppy Syndrome, or the belief that the egotistical (i.e. Tall Poppies) will all get cut or need to be cut down to size. Earlier in “Pedestrian at Best,” Barnett sings, “Put me on a pedestal, and I’ll only disappoint you.” Because for her, the very act of making herself appear larger will be disappointing.
The pun on the Australian town Preston for “Depreston” is obvious, but there are shades of neuroses, often surrounding relationships elsewhere. In “An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York),” Barnett lies awake, speaking in other languages, and staring at the walls thinking about the color and the cracks like shades of the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” where the main character slowly goes insane from being trapped in a room. In “Debbie Downer” she sings to a combatant lover, “I’m sorry for all my insecurities, but they’re just a part of me.”
The flip side is the elevation of others. Throughout, there are characters that she tries to impress (“Aqua Profunda”), two Jesuses (Kim’s Caravan), the nameless You in so many of the songs, and even Oliver Paul who turned out to be pretty content. And these are Tall Poppies she won’t cut down out of a sense of no right to do so: “I stare at the lawn, it’s Wednesday morning/It needs a cut but I leave it growing,” she sings, later lamenting that to do so would be mean.
What makes all this so engaging is the simplicity of the album’s sonics. There’s never really more than four instruments and vocals playing at any one time, and there’s never anything over-complicated about the song structure. It isn’t lazy so much as it is obvious, and obvious in the same kind of way that a song that Kurt Cobain wrote is obvious. This leaves the mental headroom to take in her chaotic, loaded lyrics, but not enough to get there the whole way the first listen through.
“Depreston,” a revealing song on an album of revealing personal inspection, glides over a two-chord structure, with barely a small lick breaking up the monotony, It elicits the image of a depressing suburb, where all the houses are the same, only for you to barely notice that the person who owned the house has died, a fact the realtor is reluctant to share (“well it’s a deceased estate/aren’t the pressed metal ceilings great?”).
Barnett isn’t a one sound pony either. She bounces from Transformer era Lou Reed to surf rock to jaunty Brit-pop. “Kim’s Caravan” is the most adventurous take on the album, open and reverb heavy, is a take on the destruction of the Australian Coast. (“Dead Fox” on the other hand is her take on the interior.) The song lulls, crests, and falls over nearly seven minutes with bursts of Crazy Horse Neil Young proto-grunge guitar.
After a few listens, I was left to wonder how she made this all so appealing, dare I say, relatable? Barnett’s main concerns throughout the whole album (with the exception maybe of the first track) are herself, whomever she’s dating, and to a lesser degree, Australia. I’m not her, dating her, and I’ve never been to Australia, let alone know much about it (I really thought that Sydney was the capital). Sometimes, even the songs are addressed to specific people, but that doesn’t even take away from the empathy you feel for Barnett as the character in these songs.
Somehow I feel a companionship with the narrator of these songs, even if I don’t share the experience. This is not unlike my sympathies with J. A. Prufrock from the Eliot poem. The character, a ball of nerves traverses the poem like the narrator Barnett tramps through this album: full of questions and non-answers, images out of the spiritual world, and I can hear him—and myself and Oliver Paul—singing the refrain from “Nobody Really Cares if You Don’t Go to the Party”: “I wanna go out, but I want to stay home.” Each lyric and each solo lashes out as if it had been forced to its crisis.
And like Prufrock, Sometimes I Sit and Think leads us to an overwhelming question—or questions—through Barnett’s eclectic mélange of lyrical battery. You feel yourself in these songs, and you don’t know why. But don’t ask her what she really means, she’s well aware of this problem: “I am just a reflection/Of what you really wanna see/So take what you want from me”
Article by: Christopher Gilson