Courtney Barnett Relinquishes Control

On November 9, 2021

Courtney Barnett is a master of the minute: She’s the type to see — and sing about — “soy linseed Vegemite crumbs” or a house’s relics (“The handrail in the shower / A collection of those canisters for coffee, tea and flour / And a photo of a young man in a van in Vietnam”). These verbose, pithy observations comprise entire stories, with their long, winding lines always threatening to overlap a chord or bump into each other.

That storytelling was somewhat eschewed on her last album, Tell Me How You Really Feel, a rock-heavy work. But on Things Take Time, Take Time, out Nov. 12, Barnett returns to a slower, more thoughtful pace. In part, she was exhausted performing her previous intense album; also, the global impact of COVID afforded her a lot of time to rest, reflect and slow down.

“[Touring musicians] all kind of burn out in different ways, for whatever reason. I don't know if I would call [my experience] burnout — I would just say that there were moments where I was probably depressed,” Barnett said. “I think it's not the actual touring that does that, but it's the world around you and all the smaller things, like the connections and the relationships and the life.”

Back in Melbourne in March 2020, Barnett “had the time and the space for this extreme internal kind of reflection, with not really many distractions or excuses to make.” The resulting work, Things Take Time, Take Time, is true to its name — an intimate, honest, gentle unspooling of self-discovery.

The first track she wrote was “Write A List of Things to Look Forward To,” she told Rolling Stone; the song sees her strive to persist by racking up available pleasures, like her “morning coffee tomorrow.”

“It was born from this stuck place of being depressed and not being able to see a future or to see joy in the future, and the process of really analyzing and seeing these little moments,” Barnett said. “Even though it comes from that more negative space, it finds the positive.”

Opener “Rae Street” feels just like that opportune dawn, a hazy band of light on the horizon. Barnett introduces the lazy day (“In the morning I’m slow / I drag a chair over to the window / And I watch what’s going on”), then lists off sayings she’s heard from her parents — it’s equally optimistic and quotidian, breezy and genuine.

While much of the album finds Barnett static in a glacial world, she’s far from joyless. At a second of sunlight, Barnett sings: “It’s these small thrills / That get me through the day until the next one.” “Turning Green” notices: “The trees are turning green / And this springtime lethargy / Is kinda forcing you to see / Flowers in the weeds.”

What prevents a slow-moving record from turning dreary are those very “flowers in the weeds.” The positivity that’s so central to Things Take Time is inextricably tied to relinquishing control and opening up. After the utterly unpredictable past year and a half, the former isn’t surprising; as for vulnerability, Barnett said this is likely her most open work yet.

Just look at its predecessor, Tell Me How You Really Feel: On that record, she sings, “Tell me how you really feel / I don’t know, I don’t know / I don’t know anything.” On this album’s “Oh the Night,” Barnett offers that “It takes a little / Time for me to show / How I really feel / Won’t you meet me somewhere in the middle.”

She called the general inclination to protect yourself from vulnerability “human instinct.”

“Even when we think we are being vulnerable or truthful, there's always this element of ourselves that is trying to protect us from something, this fear of humiliation or rejection or whatever it is,” Barnett said. “I think sometimes we don't even know if we're being truthful with ourselves.”

Being vulnerable means, to a degree, loosening your grip on a number of things: personal history, private emotions. On “Here’s the Thing,” a beachy, soft track, Barnett notes: “I’m not afraid of heights / Maybe I’m just scared of falling.” And that fear can hold us back.

That line isn’t just about the loss of control, either. Things Take Time is an album about positivity, yes, but it’s also about love; Barnett said that of late, she’s learned what unconditional love is: that it can’t be controlled, and that it’s all-consuming.

“If I Don’t Hear From You Tonight” is the pinnacle of a Barnett love song: it has a “childish joy” to it — “All my fears collided, when our mutual friend confided in me that / There’s a 99% chance that it’s requited” — but notes offhandedly that “Stars in the sky / Are gonna die.” (“We're all gonna die one day, so you might as well embrace these good moments,” she said.)

Things Take Time was written when “there were moments where it looked like the world was ending and if the world didn't end, that looked like, at the very least, the music industry was gonna end.” To a degree, Barnett assumed that no one would ever hear the album. And that gave her the freedom of vulnerability, the freedom to relinquish some control.

“There's strange elements of control that sometimes come in tandem with love or with relationships. Humans, sometimes we crave that control in certain environments, or if we can control one part of our life, then it simulates that everything else is OK,” Barnett said. “But it's kind of impossible. You can't control the world around you and the people around you — you can just kind of do your best in your own kind of little spot.”

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Caitlin Wolper

Caitlin Wolper is a writer whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Vulture, Slate, MTV News, Teen Vogue, and more. Her first poetry chapbook, Ordering Coffee in Tel Aviv, was published in October by Finishing Line Press. She shares her music and poetry thoughts (with a bevy of exclamation points, and mostly lowercase) at @CaitlinWolper.

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