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Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile - "Lotta Sea Lice" | Album Review

courtney barnett cover.jpg

by Dylan Pennell (@dylan_pennell)

Throughout history even the most robustly introverted will admit to the comforting proximity of a friend. Even in famed tales of wanderlust and seclusion, too often has the lone wanderer expressed a profound desire for friendship after considerable time alone (see Into the Wild) or made innumerable jaunts back to the warm confines of society in the midst of a self-proclaimed “Spartan-like” lifestyle (see Walden) - no disrespect to my boy HDT though. It might seem like a criticism to point out antithetical behavior in two well-known and divisive personalities in the annals of asceticism, but the highlight here is not a shortcoming, but rather a simple fact of life: people need people. Whether friendship simply staves off inevitable feelings of inadequacy, isolation, depression or any of the other unsavory feelings we get at odd hours or acts as a boon to our own creative abilities, as we get older it’s hard to deny the draw and comfort in spending time with friends.  

Celebrated friendships in art have run the gamut of benevolent benders providing respite from interpersonal anxieties (Harry Nilsson and John Lennon), pissing contests (Kanye West and Jay-Z) and even just checking out the size of your dick (Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald). Despite the arguable quality of some of the artistic byproducts of friendship, something about letting “quality” take a backseat seems not only permissible, but favorable.  Sure, Pussycats isn’t a great record, but it sure does sound like Nilsson and Lennon had some demons to exercise, and as such, it’s easy to be grateful that it was made.  

So here we are in 2017 and two current indie darlings, Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett (yes, Kurt and Courtney) have paired up on a collaborative LP, but the question is “Is it a Lennon-Nilsson toss off, a grand bout of chest puffing, or just another dick flapping in the wind?” Luckily, none of these effectively describe the duo’s first collaborative effort. What Lotta Sea Lice does amount to is a charming and engaging record about friendship and making music. The narrative being constructed around this record, both in the media and in the lyrics themselves, is one of two artists not only genuinely appreciating the other, but also that of a friend helping to rescue another from uncertainty and expectation. In interviews leading up the release Barnett has been vocal about her own writer’s block and the expectations heaped upon her after the release of 2015’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit. Luckily for her, a burgeoning friendship and appreciation between she and Kurt Vile culminated in writing and recording sessions.

It’s also worth noting how fitting the pair are for one another. Both exist in a unique realm of indie-rock that engenders sold-out tours and mild crossover success, yet both artists seem wholly unswayed by musical trends and critics. They are artists who demand that you get comfortable with their strangely appealing voices, wry and listless delivery, and humorous glances at the quotidian, rather than meeting you halfway. Lucky for listeners that both Vile and Barnett, despite their unique and potentially divisive voices, make music that feels equal parts easy-going folk and classic rock strut, warm and inviting in ways that only the most well-worn classics seem able to be.

Meanwhile, Vile, having released three critically acclaimed and increasingly financially successful albums since 2010, finds himself in a creatively advantageous position. After delivering so consistently with his solo work, he has earned an amount of creative license that he has yet to cash in on. Not only this, but Vile has already weathered a storm of hype in his career and sits comfortably within the pantheon of great singer-songwriters of this decade.

And so it comes as no surprise that the collaborative LP Lotta Sea Lice is a meeting of the minds in the most traditional sense.  The sense of democracy here is so apparent that each artist even covers another of the other’s songs. Vile and Barnett swap verses and layer each other’s vocals one on top of the other to ensure that there is no mistaking who this record belongs to. Despite this great effort to create level ground and despite the lyrical similarities inherent in both of their respective discographies, the album wholly feels like Vile opening up his experienced arms to a newcomer facing the struggle of an artist’s still-blossoming career arc.  

Vile’s fingerprints are apparent straight from the start with “Over Everything,” a song that would have fit comfortably in with the strumming epics of Wakin’ On a Pretty Daze. Barnett’s dry and listless singing sounds almost more at home within the sprawling confines of Vile’s soundscapes than in her own as both songwriters trade observations on the natural world before extolling their individual relationships with writing music. Both seem content to ease the metaphorical clouds that hang “over everything” by turning the music up and allowing their creativity the opportunity to soothe. Opening with the blue-sky chime of Vile’s typically melancholic guitar tone and listlessly moving along at a steady clip, Barnett seamlessly enters the fold as a like-minded itinerant as both swap verses about the the soothing effects of creativity and nature before both share a transcendent moment of empathy:

"When I was young I liked to hear music blarin’ / And I wasn’t carin’ to neuter my jams with earplugs / But these days I inhabitate a high-pitched ring over things / So these days I plug ‘em up"

"When I’m strugglin’ with my songs I do the same thing too / And then I crunch ‘em up in headphones cause why wouldn’t you? / You could say I hear you on several levels at high decibels / Over Everything"

Barnett’s admission to hearing Vile’s musings “over everything” feels like not only a testament to the mutual artistic respect in this dynamic, but also like a declaration of the ways in which that sacred bond between music or two people seems to reign supreme over the anxiety and sadness inherent in everyday life. Not only does the song hit musical heights for both of their careers, but the lyrics themselves, due in no small part to their conversive nature, are elevated to a level of poignancy unachievable without discourse, that feeling of peace and solace that comes with finding someone like-minded with whom to share your worldview and concerns.

The song is both a perfect and challenging place for the record to start as it perfectly frames the nature of their collaboration, is effortlessly catchy, and presents a difficult mark of quality to hurdle over for the rest of the record. While what follows never quite recaptures the passively stirring pathos the two conjure initially, they still manage to rationalize the project many times over the subsequent eight tracks.

From the first song, both lyrically and stylistically, the album has established its modus operandi as we continue to hear Barnett and Vile muse about the “wilderness” of creativity and friendship’s ability to provide succor. “Let It Go,” the album’s second track, is luckily not the duo’s take on the now-familiar Disney tune, but rather begins with a teacher-student dynamic set up in the duo’s swapped verses as Barnett inquires “What time do you usually wake up?” to which Vile responds “Depends on what time I sleep.” At first it sounds as if Barnett’s found herself so paralyzed by uncertainty and the expectation of following up her universally-acclaimed debut that she is combing through Vile’s own personal habits and routines trying to conclude how to become “steady.” It soon becomes apparent that the precarious nature of the lyrics extend to both parties throughout as they each try to recommend ways of coping and being productive amongst a hectic schedule and ubiquitous anxiety. Resolving itself in the declaration that “You’ve got to let it go/Before it takes control” both Vile and Barnett sing in unison to one another and to themselves in a melodious act of humility and solidarity.

Fittingly, the following two songs, “Fear is Like a Forest” and “Outta the Woodwork” make use of the same metaphor to address dissimilar subjects. The former feels like the first perfect stylistic match up between both artists as Barnett’s guitars scrape along the interior of the song while the strutting rhythm recalls Vile’s two most recent albums. Lyrically, Barnett continues to hammer home her difficulty with “letting go,” which she further details in the chorus:

"But I know that it works cause I’ve seen it that it’s true / If you just let it go. It’ll come back to you / It’ll come back in spades / It’ll come back in pairs. It’ll come back in ways / It’ll come back cause you care"

The lyrics here can be read as Barnett assuring herself or maybe even Vile, that though the obscure muse of creativity might feel fleeting, it will always come back, even if only because they will it to do so.

“Out of the Woodwork,” by title alone, expresses that Barnett and Vile have made it out of the “forest of fear” but to what end? Rather than a direct sequel to the previous song, we have Vile covering Barnett’s work from her Double EP. Fear not, the addition of a cover in this instance does nothing to throw off the vibe or themes already established. Lyrically, the focus here is on a bout of tumult in a relationship and the ensuing consolation of reconciliation. The song itself feels like a call from both artists to their partners, ostensibly asking them to see things through someone else’s eyes. Though it doesn’t address the dynamic of Vile and Barnett’s unique relationship, it does allow both to denote their mutual fascination and dedication to benevolence and empathy.

Both artists work hard to establish a narrative framing for the partnership and as a result, the album itself too. However, upon initial listens a clear divide exists on the album itself. While the front half of the album deals directly with the frustrations of anxiety in relation to songwriting and the looming threat and actuality of writer’s block, this thematic tissue seemingly evaporates after track five upon the first few listens. Even “Outta the Woodwork” and “Continental Breakfast” seem to disavow the framework set up by the first three tracks.  Knowing the lackadaisical delivery and personas of both artists, it wouldn’t be surprising if they had both simply felt they dwelled on the problem for too long. However, given the cursory nature of the recording process - recorded in 8 days over a span of 15 months - I quickly tried to reconcile how such an error could be so. However, subsequent listens reveal something much less telling, but no less touching. As the album wears on, while it may not deal with creative struggles as directly, it addresses their friendship and creativity in new and earnest ways.

As mentioned above, one element that does follow the record through, to a lyrically dynamic conclusion is that of empathic friendship. These two artists clearly share some emotional ground between them and rather than harp on their feelings of inadequacy as songwriters, the rest of the record ambles around their friendship with some thematic content to tie it to the record’s very acutely cohesive first half.  

This year’s BFF anthem “Continental Breakfast” is a twinkling ode to friends from across the globe; the accompanying music video does little to dissociate the song from its extremely adorable conceit. In their usual blase’ delivery, each artist rhapsodizes the virtues of their continental friendship in lieu of their own “bruised egos.” Whereas “Continental Breakfast” conveys the refreshing impact of a conversation on a phone in a lonely hotel room, the following song finds Barnett bemoaning the devolution of a relationship into too-familiar-for-comfort territory. A gently chugging rock n’ roll lullaby, Barnett’s mini-epic “On Script,”builds in a fashion similar to Barnett’s own “Small Poppies.” Ultimately, the sing-song melodies drop away like coastline properties plummeting into an ocean of furiously cresting guitars.

Differing styles once again perfectly harmonize on “Blue Cheese,” a cut that again deftly creates something shiny and new out of previously existing elements from the duo’s respective palettes. What this amalgamation amounts to is a lovely western-styled strummer, replete with goofy lyrics, animated drawls, and enough airy levity to feel like the musical equivalent of each member convivially slapping you on the back. Cuts like these are what’s so great about two artists getting in a room together like this; they are bound to sound as buoyant and lively as the experience is for them.  

Penultimate track “Peeping Tom” turns the tables on Vile’s reverential take on Barnett by letting Barnett have a crack. “Peeping Tom,” which initially showed up on Vile’s 2011 breakthrough effort Smoke Ring For My Halo, has been a focal point for Barnett in recent interviews as she was initially spellbound upon first listen. Hearing the melodies and lyrics poor from her mouth makes it feel as if it was her song all along. The songwriting is well within her wheelhouse as well, and judging by recent interviews it seems that whatever she experienced when she first bought the LP reverberated so intensely for her that the song is very well in her musical DNA, providing the necessary inspiration to help nurture her own past creative habits. In this way, this song helps to further the thematic thread developed earlier, albeit in a more esoteric and meta fashion. The loving performance and heartfelt vocals make this yet another high water mark in an album already brimming.

Bringing the album to a heartrending conclusion is the ironically titled “Untogether," a stirring ballad in the grand tradition of Mazzy Star, aimed at communicating an air of defeat in a record otherwise characterized by healing. As the guitar lets the two stumble through their troubles, the added slide guitar sings a beautiful song of resignation and quiet Western malaise. Both singers narrate about friendships/relationships gone sour. Worry not, the sentiment doesn’t seemed aimed at one another so much as an undesignated third party. Once again they sing as if trying to reassure each other that some people fade from your life and despite everyone’s best intentions, they aren’t made to last.  

Perhaps the final track’s captivating send-off is a comment on the ephemeral nature of friendships in general. While Barnett and Vile are here today, they might not ever do this type of project again. Rather than stretch it past its limitations, each musician came in, helped engender creativity and nurse the wounds it can create and now both are content to, as they sang earlier, “Let it go.” As the song tallies up a troop of friends unworthy of friendship, it also becomes apparent that this may be both artists backwardly praising their own relationship. In lieu of all the failed ones they’ve had in their life it may feel reassuring to finally have found another person to share in this strife, someone to commiserate with about all the lost contacts along the way to adulthood. After all, isn’t that ultimately what this record is about? Finding someone special to hear you out and understand you in a way unique to one another?  

In the end, what we are left with is a beautifully crafted album by two professionals: one of which might have some doubts about his/her abilities as a professional musician. Simply listening to them work out their problems while praising their friendship easily makes for one of the loveliest, most dynamic, and compelling listens of the year.