Home Read Albums Of The Week: Courtney Barnett | Things Take Time, Take Time

Albums Of The Week: Courtney Barnett | Things Take Time, Take Time

The Australian singer-songwriter takes it down a notch on her reflective third album.

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THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE: “The sun rises and the sun sets. Mow the lawn, and it’ll grow back; cut your fingernails and they’ll grow back too. Weatherboards age; replace them when they rot and admire the way the old ones and the new ones look together. Overcast skies always become blue again, eventually. Living among uncertainty can make you forget that certainty is everywhere, all around us.

Courtney Barnett’s first two albums told stories of the tiny splinters that pull on the very fabric of the world: the way panic attacks and unmoored comments and unsightly, unseemly vistas can make knots and tears that are impossible not to fixate on. Her third album steps back, takes a breath, takes a beat, asks you not to fixate on the little things. It’s quieter and smaller than you might expect from Courtney. If you don’t like it — although you probably will — it’s no big deal; just give it another go tomorrow.

Things Take Time, Take Time is finely woven, soft to the touch; spanning 10 wide-eyed, open-hearted vignettes, it traces the gentle arc of a life, forgoing pithy detail in favour of generous scene setting and graceful character development. It’s an object of beauty made for everyday use and, like most things of that ilk, a lot of work went into it, emotionally and physically.

In 2019, Courtney found herself at some point close to burnt out. “By the end of the Tell Me How You Really Feel cycle, I was a bit down on myself, and exhausted — not exhausted of touring or music, but just of life,” she recalls. The songs she was writing were tainted with an ambient sense of anger — not aimed towards any one person or thing, but present nonetheless. Her brain was due for a rewiring, something to help shake off the blues. She toured alone for a little while; as 2020 began, she felt the positive slowly begin to creep back in, brushing off the cobwebs that had begun to collect. She began to write songs that were looser, sweeter, kinder to herself and to others.

Photo by Mia Mala McDonald.

In March 2020, Courtney flew back home to Melbourne, to live alone for the first time in her life and, back home, she was afforded time to do the things that the life of a touring musician often can’t allow: Listen to music she never thought she’d listen to; reflect on things she didn’t realise needed reflection; sit with herself and her thoughts, with no interruptions or conflicting schedules. She continued to write, still tapping into the vein of positivity she’d reclaimed earlier in the year, and, eventually, found herself with the material that would end up becoming her most joyous record to date: Things Take Time, Take Time.

“I feel like I was intentionally trying to find the positives in things,” Courtney says. In her mind, Things Take Time, Take Time represents a marked shift in her outlook — from being closed off and “defensive,” both musically and personally, to being more open. “I think in the past, if something upset me, or if I found something painful, I would make a joke about it or say how much I didn’t care about it. This time, I was more aware of that, and not trying to cover things up so much. The last album, I would talk about how it was vulnerable, but in hindsight I feel like it was very guarded. This one actually feels vulnerable.”

You can hear it: Things Take Time, Take Time is sighing and honest, almost surprisingly so. This album represents a swing of the pendulum away from Tell Me How You Really Feel’s muscular rock back towards the loose stitching of Courtney’s earliest records. Assisted by her longtime friend and collaborator Stella Mozgawa, with whom she first worked on 2017’s Kurt Vile collaboration Lotta Sea Lice, Courtney furnished Things Take Time, Take Time with lush, bright ornamentation: Wurlitzers, drum machines, warm acoustic guitars, sunny, easygoing harmonies.

“I was picking Stella’s brain about home recording stuff, asking who I should work with for my next album. I knew I wanted to do something with her, but I was too afraid to ask her,” recalls Courtney. The pair had played a show together on Valentine’s Day 2020, and had both decamped back to Australia at the start of the Covid pandemic; swapping notes on Covid travel and quarantine turned into discussions about Things Take Time, Take Time that, in hindsight, were probably something akin to pre-production. Eventually, the pair worked together on a contribution to Sharon Van Etten’s epic Ten compilation, a last-minute studio session that confirmed their creative chemistry.

Photo by Mia Mala McDonald.

As with her songwriting, Courtney’s approach to production needed a complete re-writing, and Stella, first and foremost a drummer, showed Courtney new entryways hiding within songs she thought she knew well. “I can get a little bit lost in the studio — if I hit a wall on a song I just go inward and get negative,” Courtney says. “Whenever there was a wall, Stella would take charge and would try something in a totally different way. I think that was so important for me, and integral to the songs. You can hear the Stella on this album.”

Things Take Time, Take Time’s palette is slighter than Courtney’s past records, to be sure, but there is so much beauty to be found in this airier clime. Before You Gotta Go, an early highlight, turns a frustrated kiss-off into the most gracious of love songs, atop spare, warm drums and guitar: “If something were to happen my dear, I wouldn’t want the last words you hear to be unkind.” Splendour moves at a snail’s crawl, and is one of the most beautiful songs Courtney has ever put to tape. It is not a self-contained novel, like some of her earlier classics — “Remember when we watched that sunset? / Deep in the desert, on the cliff edge / Some day, so soon, I’ll be seeing you” — because you need space to take in that fast-fading sunset. “Sometimes I try to say everything in one song, or put my whole belief system into a vox pop, but you just can’t do that — it’s impossible,” Courtney says. Things Take Time, Take Time, then, represents a realisation that ideology is represented through the way you treat others, not what you say in a song — that some things are more felt than said.

Sunfair Sundown, the second song, encompasses this outlook in all its shambolic, easy glory. Riding the steady beat of a drum machine, it’s conversational and kind, deeply in love with the oft-forgotten minutiae of life. “It’s an acceptance of life ambling along — life happens, and you roll with it,” Courtney says. “The world is so pointless, and so fucked in so many ways, but there’s so many beautiful little small moments happening.” This idea is woven tightly into Things Take Time, Take Time; it’s introduced early on, on Rae Street, a world-weary survey of the world: “There’s one thing I know; the sun will rise today and tomorrow. We got a long, long way to go.”

Photo by Mia Mala McDonald.

As with so many of the songs on Things Take Time, Take Time, Sunfair Sundown was written for a friend, and celebrates the kind of connection that endures across years and life changes. The brightest songs on Things Take Time, Take Time are love letters to friends and to friendship; Write A List Of Things To Look Forward To takes its name from the technique one of Courtney’s friends advocated for to get her out of a depressive funk, and paints a bittersweet picture of small wins and the circle of life; the grinning, inevitable live favourite Take It Day By Day was written for a group of friends Courtney would speak to every Tuesday on Zoom, and finds anthemic verve in the act of taking care of those you love. “I found a deeper communication with people in my life, — deeper conversations,” Courtney says, “And a new level of gratitude for friendships that had been there for so long that I had maybe taken for granted.”

At the heart of Things Take Time, Take Time is a love song — one of Courtney’s first.“If I Don’t Hear From You Tonight is effervescently, unabashedly, cheekily love-drunk, soaring and remarkably high-stakes in comparison to the rest of the record: “If loving you’s a crime, then gimme those front-page headlines,” Courtney sings, aware of the cliche and crushing too hard to care. “I think my stance in the past was like, ‘There’s so many love songs and they don’t mean anything,’ but there’s something really special about zooming in on a moment and capturing it,” she says. “If I Don’t Hear From You Tonight comes from the state of where my head was at — trying to communicate honestly instead of keeping [my feelings] guarded.” It’s not verbose or heady; it’s a profound, joyful, totally joyous song, one about being in love with someone else and in love with the feeling of being in love. It takes life one minute at a time, and, like all of Things Take Time, Take Time presents a value to keep close to your heart: say less, but say exactly what you feel.”