Courtney Barnett

The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas

(Marathon Artists; 2013)

By Corey Beasley | 20 November 2013

Courtney Barnett’s The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas sounds at once timeless and the work of a definitively youthful songwriter. On the one hand, its blues-laced, dive bar rock—with its emphasis on mid-tempo grooves and simple chord progressions—dials things all the way back to electric Dylan and onward to the Band. On the other, the stoned observations and kush-glazed humor of her lyrics are coated in a sheen of twenty-something wonder by her clean, girlish vocals. The results, a blend of wry irony and heart-on-sleeve emoting carried ably along by a sturdy backing band, can be captivating at their best.

Split Peas combines 2012’s I’ve Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris EP and this year’s How to Carve a Carrot into a Rose EP into a single package, and Barnett has been careful in interviews to point out she doesn’t consider the record a proper debut LP. The distinction makes sense: though these twelve tracks share a cohesive sound, they also feel like the studious work of a songwriter gearing up for something bigger. The majority of the material on Split Peas sticks to the same formula—the bass lays down a simple groove that will remain unchanged for most of the track, the drums set a hypnotically simple beat, and Barnett plays bright chords to provide a foundation for the real draw here, her lyrics. It’s a loose, jammy blueprint, sure, but a blueprint nonetheless, and occasionally it begins to grate with its monochrome palate. “Are You Looking After Yourself,” for instance, doesn’t earn its nearly eight-minute runtime, and even though the band sits it out on closer “Ode to Odetta,” the welcome shift in arrangement isn’t enough to save the track from its own anemic atmosphere.

But Barnett’s highs here more than make up for a few burnouts. The roots rock stomp of “David” gives extra bite to flippant couplets like “I don’t really like any of your friends / But it’s not that hard for me to pretend,” while opener “Out of the Woodwork” combines beautifully imagistic phrases (“I was busy underwater / Seeing how long I could hold my breath / A drowning flower caught my eye and I / Had to come on up for air”) with more straightforward, pleasantly direct observations (“Just because you’re older than me / Doesn’t mean you have to be so condescending / I still see the same things you see”) to solid effect. Most of Barnett’s songs find her caught somewhere between wide-eyed romantic yearning and disaffected acidity, and that ambivalence makes her material engagingly murky. Half the fun here is parsing through the remarkable nuance of feeling contained in almost every track.

Even amongst all this rich, rewarding work, Split Peas has a clear standout. “Avant Gardener” is a stunner, a breathless, morning-after tale of a mundane Monday turned quixotic after Barnett’s mounting depression gets the best of her. It’s one the finest pieces of narrative songwriting I’ve heard in years, and easily lends itself to quotation. Too much would ruin the story, of course, but the couplet that has become the song’s—and record’s—most well-known serves a fitting taste of Barnett’s plainspoken lyricism: “The paramedic thinks I’m clever ‘cause I play guitar / I think she’s clever ‘cause she stops people dying.” It’s worth the price of admission for “Avant Gardener” alone, just to find out how Barnett ends up with that paramedic, and where she goes from there. Where Barnett goes from here remains to be seen, but when she hits her mark on Split Peas she sounds like one of the most exciting singer-songwriters to strum a major chord in a while.