Courtney Barnett’s latest album, Things Take Time, Take Time, seems like her most straightforward, but we should not take its sunny optimism for granted. In relation to previous work, it seems rigorously disciplined, sticking to a restrained sound and upholding a positive outlook throughout. It is not particularly innovative or surprising, but rather content to master its tone, creating a more consistent mood than earlier work. Expect this album to ease its way under your skin, even if it does not necessarily reach out and grab you on first listen.
Things Take Time… feels inextricable from the context in which it was written. Its title nods to Barnett’s lockdown writing process and the space the pandemic brought back to her life. This space had been constricted by years of heavy touring since the release of her 2015 debut, as felt throughout the claustrophobic, at times self-accusatory Tell Me How You Really Feel (2018). Things Take Time… is remarkably at ease, with its sunny guitars and gently rolling tunes, reflecting and appreciating the slower pace of life that the pandemic forced upon us. This makes for an album that does not particularly challenge the listener and on the surface does not challenge Barnett to create her most ambitious work, though the fact she is able to make something so straightforwardly pleasant in itself speaks volumes for her journey over the last few years. Discussing the creation of the album, Barnett commented to DIY, that “sometimes you have to go all the way down the wrong path to go back and find the short, easy answer”, an attitude that seems to define this new release in relation to her previous works that were more complex but also emotionally fraught.
Barnett said of Tell Me How You Really Feel that many of the songs were conceived as ‘letters to friends’ but always seemed to turn out addressed to herself, which apparently gave her more licence to be critical. On Things Take Time…, however, it feels like the songs look more genuinely beyond their creator into the lives of loved ones, and in doing so finds a sympathetic tone. ‘Sunfair Sundown’ and ‘Turning Green’ both congratulate friends on newfound contentment (“I’ve never seen you so happy”, she croons on the latter). ‘Take it Day by Day’ encourages its subject to keep on keeping on (to borrow a phrase from an earlier Barnett song) with the chugging syncopation of a fitness DVD and some great lines, the best being, “Don’t stick that knife in the toaster, Baby life is like a rollercoaster”. ‘If I Don’t Hear from You Tonight’, an anthem for locked-down dating as mediated by distance and DMs, is an exercise in putting herself in the shoes of a crush who hasn’t replied perhaps just because they’ve gone to bed or something, not because they’re not interested.
Though never particularly ostentatious with sound, on Things Take Time… Barnett is most decisive in stripping things back to their simplest form. Breaking with her usual lineup of bassist Bones Sloane, drummer Dave Mudie and a rotating cast of contributors on various other instruments, Barnett elected to record these tracks almost entirely between herself and drummer/producer Stella Mozgawa (of Warpaint, but also spotted popping up increasingly on a range of canny indie releases). This results in a set of wonderfully simple arrangements which as a whole anchor the lucid positivity of the album’s themes. Compare the easy, gentle opener ‘Rae Street’ with the previous album’s ‘Need a Little Time’, which has moments of similar niceness that are then undercut by the suddenly heavy “and you, ooh ooh ooh” section of the chorus. This streamlining of arrangement recalls the shift made by Cate le Bon on her album Mug Museum, for which she consciously restrained songs to their most essential layers so that each part felt necessary and nothing was crowded out (something she has since taken further on more experimental albums also featuring… you guessed it: Stella Mozgawa). The influence of Cate le Bon and Mug Museum in particular also translates itself into the guitar lines of tracks like ‘Sunfair Sundown’ and ‘If I Don’t Hear from You Tonight’ (indeed, the latter actually features le Bon on bass!).
Things Take Time… seems to finally match the enduring image of Courtney Barnett, as expressed in endless Australian sunflower desert Marcelle Bradbeer photoshoots, unburdened by the psychological struggles that have previously taken over her writing and able to find a great deal of space in its rolling guitar lines. It is perhaps her most Australian-sounding album, with her more grungey 90s references sidelined in favour of that expansive ‘striped sunlight sound’ mastered recently by acts like Twerps, Jade Imagine and Dick Diver (whom Barnett has been quoted as calling “the best living band in Australia”). We get the sense that Barnett enjoyed returning to her musical roots, not only in terms of these influences but also in the manner in which they were channelled. She is keen to leave evidence of the solo, domestic lockdown creation process, often leaving guitar lines exposed and clean and building tracks around simple loops on an old drum. The best example of this is ‘Turning Green’, a highlight of the album that starts out sounding like a demo with the vocals mixed unusually quietly and a buzzy bedroom guitar playing along, before it spirals into a bizarre and fantastic instrumental close, a rare and welcome surprise on a rather strait-laced track-list.
This collection of songs is rather unassuming, as Barnett favours slow burners and small-scale, day-to day mindfulness. This is not necessarily a bad thing, though. Barnett has constructed an album that maintains a more measured and balanced tone than previous efforts. A radically pleasant album that speaks of the best of the slowed down pandemic world.
Things Take Time, Take Time, the latest album from Courtney Barnett, is out now via Milk! Records.