The most Courtney Barnett line on Courtney Barnett’s second album is a quote from an online troll. “He said, ‘I could eat a bowl of alphabet soup and spit out better words than you,’” she recalls, on “Nameless Faceless,” and then offers an uncharacteristically cocksure response in a shruggy sing-song: “But you didn’t.” The anonymous critic’s putdown assumes that Barnett’s witty early EPs and debut album cemented her style, making it ripe for parody. Abandoning social realism and polysyllabic razzle-dazzle, Tell Me How You Really Feel in fact overhauls almost everything we’ve come to expect from Barnett as a writer while vindicating everything she promised of herself on her 2015 debut LP: “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you.”
On Tell Me, Barnett repeatedly flails at the question of what a Courtney Barnett line would be anyway: What kind of bargain does a songwriter strike with her audience? “I don’t know a lot about you but/You seem to know a lot about me,” she sings, perturbed, on “Need a Little Time.” What does she have to say and should she even say it? “Indecision rots like a bag of last week’s meat” on a song called “Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence.” She vacillates between despair and self-loathing, living on nerves and feelings. Introspection becomes claustrophobia, the kind where you want to unzip your skin, clamber out, and shake your self off like a wet dog. The palpable discomfort could come off as Barnett complaining about her modest fame if her low-key personality didn’t make evident precisely how much she’d abhor that idea. It’s more essential than that: Courtney Barnett is tentative about how to be in the world, full stop.
Fortunately, her crisis of confidence isn’t reflected in the music: Tell Me is adventurous and nuanced; shapelier than its rabid greyhound predecessor, making Barnett’s game, punky guitar a key part of the storytelling rather than kindling for the engine. She can still go neck-and-neck with Stephen Malkmus when it comes to hangdog indie-rock triumphalism, but her playing now tells stories of tenderness and frustration, too.