Music Reviews
Things Take Time, Take Time

Courtney Barnett Things Take Time, Take Time

(Milk Records) Rating - 8/10

If you thought a year indoors had brought you back to square one, spare a thought for Courtney Barnett. As the world shut down, the Melbourne songwriter had gone through a break-up, prepared to move to the other side of the world, and watched swathes of her country catch fire. Once the plans to move to Los Angeles were put on ice, so too was a rough attempt at a third album. The year that followed saw Barnett rebuild, not quite from scratch, but with a new approach. Things Take Time, Take Time sees the musician give up searching for quick answers, and enjoy knowing that they’re out there somewhere anyway.

One likely challenge of any artist writing during the pandemic is knowing how to reference the past two years while bringing something new to a completely universal experience. For Barnett, a songwriter renowned for writing about the ordinary, there seemed to be no question this would be an album about the pandemic. Perhaps surprisingly, the direct references to living through one of the world’s strictest lockdowns are thin, but even when writing more generally she manages to encompass every feeling—from the novelty of the letter writing and Zooms of the first couple of weeks, right down to moments spent counting down every seconds in a day.

This knack for bottling a fraction in time is often lost in discussions about Barnett’s songwriting, which focus on her humor and the detail of her more mundane subjects. And yet, it’s always soundtracking a very specific moment that gives Barnett’s music staying power. Her breakthrough EP, A Sea of Split Peas, had the bounce and crash of the mid-20s where you’re still naive enough to mess around, but the bruises are just starting to show. Sometimes I Sit and Think… often referenced almost crippling expectations she was saddled with ahead of her debut album.

It was most forthright in her last, Tell Me How You Really Feel. With song titles like Hopefulessness and Need a Little Time, it didn’t disguise her burnout and fatigue— which is only built upon when listening alongside her ex-partner Jen Cloher’s equally impressive self-titled album. In the trailer for a documentary filmed while touring, Barnett says she had trouble even being positive while being on the road.

It’s interesting to wonder whether the speed of which the world changed was behind the decision to scrap her first attempt. The only hint that the public ever got was an untitled track on the live MTV Unplugged album. In that song, Barnett languishes in the breakdown of a relationship, and asks “would you even know … even care, if you never see me again?” There have been moments of quiet contemplation before (Anonymous Club), but there had never been anything close to this dour teaser.

Instead, the final version of Things Take Time revels in finding silver linings and the freedom of. In interviews around the album’s release, Barnett teased her first ‘real’ love song, but really, there are a handful of songs that could fit the bill. These are the most fragile songs she has written, whether it’s about heartbreak or a blossoming crush. The aching Before You Gotta Go is a last plea for a partner to remember the love that was there before the fallout, while If I Don’t Hear From You Tonight bounces at the thought of the early stages of a new relationship. 

Lockdown also led to a narrower approach to production, with Barnett bringing in Warpaint’s Stella Mozgawa rather than her usual band. This results in a lighter touch rather than any major reinvention. The slinky Sunfair Sundown is one of the album’s strongest songs, but others feel slightly bogged-down and slow. Splendour, which could build into a follow-up to Kim’s Caravan, limps out after just two minutes. Closer Oh the Night is a quaint call for calm, but seems lifeless in comparison to the album’s stronger tracks. The production works best when it’s building around Barnett’s guitar. There’s a delicate echo around Rae Street—a track accepting being powerless but enjoying the ride—and a delighted urgency to Write A List of Things to Look Forward To.

Just as with Tell Me How You Really Feel, this album shines when Barnett allows some light to get in. There’s no immediate pull here but it rewards a listeners' patience, especially for those who preferred her breezy EPs over the bustle of her first two albums. It may be less consistent than her previous albums, but Barnett’s newfound willingness to be vulnerable means there’s every chance it will be remembered as her most significant work to date.

After a tumultuous two years, this isn’t a rallying call, but neither is it doomsaying. Instead, Barnett is accepting that most of us aren’t able to do anything in the eye of the storm, besides lend a hand to someone else and prepare to smile as they make the same mistakes all over again. “Sit beside me, watch the world burn/We’ll never learn we don’t deserve nice things, she sings at one point. It’s not a perfect solution, but Barnett quickly turns to finding the silver lining—and you get the impression she won’t give up until you find one too.