Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile
Lotta Sea Lice
Matador Records Limited · October 13, 2017
The grunge attitude that made Courtney’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit such a fun listen is nowhere to be found on their collaborative effort, replaced by the rustic wandering sound of Kurt’s last few albums. Not that Courtney doesn’t sound perfectly at home in Kurt’s wheelhouse. But in accommodating her, the sound fails to reach the expansive heights it reached with Kurt alone on albums like Wakin on a Pretty Daze. None of the songs jumped out as songs I would want to listen to repeatedly, and that’s coming from a person who used to start every day wakin’ up to ‘Wakin on a Pretty Day.’ But maybe I’m expecting too much. The songs on Lotta Sea Lice are still very good, and Kurt and Courtney are a great pair, but their comfort with each other becomes clear as they take fewer risks together than either took alone.
Every Kurt Vile album starts with a long rambling ballad that serves as the album’s thesis and ‘Over Everything’ is no exception. Balearic guitars layer kaleidoscopically over a sturdy theme that never loses its charm, more chilled out than ‘Pretty Pimpin’ yet more awake than ‘Wakin on a Pretty Day.’ Delivered in a deadpan stream of consciousness, the lyrics provide live commentary on the creative process. Kurt and Courtney banter about using music to cope with the ‘ominous cloud’ of negative emotions that hangs over everything, just as a haze of guitars settles in and hangs over the rest of the song.
The theme of songwriting is a common thread to their conversations. On ‘Let it Go,’ Courtney asks ‘what comes first, the chorus or the verse?’ to which Kurt replies that he’s ‘a bit blocked at the moment.’ They reach the same conclusion every writer should come to after spending more than 10 minutes staring at the page: ‘you’ve gotta let it go before it takes you over’, with Courtney promising ‘it will come back to you’ on the next song ‘Fear Is Like a Forest.’ Taking the listener behind the scenes once more, ‘Continental Breakfast’ discusses their mornings working on the album together from the lobby of a hotel in East Bumble, Wherever. While breaking the fourth wall might not be all that original anymore, their musings about the struggles of writing never feel like a cop-out. The lyrics come out as effortlessly wry and clever as anything the two have produced before.
Whether they’re harmonizing or trading bars, Kurt and Courtney’s voices are a snug fit. Her Australian accent and his sheepish drawl go together like vegemite on toast. That said, Courtney is clearly the better singer here. Her voice has a disaffected charm that still sounds beautiful even at its most casual. Capitalizing on her talent; Courtney takes the vocal lead on more tracks than not, even singing alone on ‘Peeping Tom’ and ‘On Script’. It more than makes up for her smaller fingerprint on the album’s overall sound.
Kurt and Courtney truly have a special connection. And while Lotta Sea Lice might not be a groundbreaking album for either artist, the genuine wholesomeness of their relationship will warm your heart.