Photo: Pooneh Ghana

Courtney Barnett’s debut full-length, 2015’s Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, established the Australian indie-rocker as a potent musical force. With its tumbling guitars, ragged vocals, and grunge-punk tones—all of which coalesced on the scorching, sassy “Pedestrian At Best”—the album exceeded the promise hinted at on her initial EPs. Barnett admitted later that the record’s catharsis wasn’t necessarily gleeful, but a relieved exhale: In the process of releasing Sometimes I Sit And Think, she wrestled with indecision and had to confront her own internal turbulence. “The album is a general overview of essentially a year of emotions—12 months of fucking every day, up, down, up, down,” she told NME in 2015. “I dunno what a normal person has, but every day I had a mid-life crisis.”

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This personal whiplash is absent from Barnett’s second proper full-length, Tell Me How You Really Feel. Unfortunately, the album also lacks the spry, buzzing energy of her debut. Aside from a few upbeat songs—the distortion-coated throwback “Charity” and jagged, Television-esque squalls of “City Looks Pretty”—Tell Me How You Really Feel resembles a generic ’90s indie-rock record. The spiky Nirvana influence heard on Sometimes I Sit And Think is still present, but it’s subsumed by laid-back tempos, hammock-nap guitars, and shapeless arrangements. Only the quieter departure “Sunday Roast,” whose watery guitar ambience conjures Yo La Tengo, leverages these influences in intriguing ways.

Tell Me’s music also reflects how Barnett’s emotional spark seems dulled; the record feels like it’s in a permanent brownout state. Throughout the songs, Barnett’s vocals are blunted and laissez-faire. She’s more content to go with the flow and let the music steer her singing—for example, “Walkin’ On Eggshells” finds her voice trailing behind piano and fuzzy electric guitar—instead of seizing melodic control. In many places, the album resembles Lotta Sea Lice, her languid 2017 collaborative album with Kurt Vile.

From a musical standpoint, it’s puzzling why Tell Me How You Really Feel ended up sounding like such a departure from Sometimes I Sit And Think. Both albums feature the same musical collaborators—guitarist Dan Luscombe, bassist Bones Sloane, and drummer Dave Mudie—and were co-produced by Barnett, Luscombe, and Burke Reid. The one major difference on Tell Me involves cameos from Kim and Kelley Deal: The Breeders’ brain trust adds burnt-sugar backing vocals (and, in Kim’s case, “one guitar bit”) to the spiraling pop standout “Crippling Self Doubt And A General Lack Of Self Confidence.” Unsurprisingly, this song is one of the best of the bunch; the Deals’ contributions lighten up the lyrics, which vacillate between a fatalistic outlook and bursts of defiant petulance.

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That sort of ambivalence permeates Tell Me How You Really Feel, and goes a long way to explain the album’s persistent gloom. Instead of confronting life head-on, the album’s narrators are skeptical about success (“City Looks Pretty”), struggling with self-loathing (“Charity”), or hesitant about romance (“Walkin’ On Eggshells”). When faced with turmoil or obstacles, protagonists shrug and sigh with resignation or hedge their bets. (Actual sample lyrics: “Sometimes I get sad / It’s not all that bad / One day, maybe never / I’ll come around.”) This refusal to take a stand starts to grate over time. Even the person declaring fidelity and love on “Sunday Roast” doesn’t sound invested in the relationship.

What’s frustrating is that Barnett’s early work underscores that she clearly relishes being strident. The protagonists populating Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit had no patience for emotional lethargy or people who wallowed in anger or unhappiness. (The line “Hey, Debbie Downer, turn that frown upside down and just be happy” just about sums it up.) In contrast, the demands implied by the forceful title Tell Me How You Really Feel never materialize—even on songs that should be ferocious.

The Liz Phair-esque “Nameless, Faceless” is a savage song in which the protagonist taunts an insecure man hiding behind anger and arrogance; among other things, the spiteful man criticizes her ability to write songs. Although sarcasm drips from Barnett’s voice when she sings (“Don’t you have anything better to do? / I wish that someone would hug you”) her tone is light and devil-may-care, and doesn’t emphasize the ire. In contrast, the rage simmering within the frizzy punk-rock stomp “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch” never boils over; the song noisily crash-lands and limps to a halt as Barnett croaks hoarsely, “It’s all the same, never change, never change.”

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Tell Me How You Really Feel’s most honest moments come during “Help Your Self.” As the title implies, the narrator is attempting to pump themselves up with platitudes (“You got a lot on your plate / Don’t let it go to waste”) despite being under great stress. Barnett speak-sings in a conversational tone and never breaks character, even as noisy, gnawing guitars surge and retreat around her. The symbolism on the song is striking: She’s pushing back against insecurity and external distractions by taking a stand and staying true to herself. The collection could use more of this confidence, especially because Barnett excels when balancing boisterousness with keen introspection. Instead, Tell Me How You Really Feel is a disappointing and muted record that never quite lives up to its potential.