September 2023

Noted

Courtney Barnett’s ‘End of the Day’

By Tom Hawking
Courtney Barnett’s ‘End of the Day’
A sparse instrumental album from the Australian singer-songwriter, drawn from the soundtrack to the biographical documentary ‘Anonymous Club’

Many years ago, this writer found himself in Aberdeen, Washington, home town of Kurt Cobain. It’s a depressing place, all boarded-up shopfronts and payday loan vendors. On the edge of town is the bridge over the Wishkah River under which Cobain apparently lived during homeless spells in the mid 1980s. If you clamber down the riverbank and just sit a while, the silence broken only by the languid buzz of dragonflies and the occasional car passing overhead, you get a sense of just how insane it must have been to go – in less than a decade – from sleeping under a tarpaulin in this peaceful place to being an era-defining global megastar.

You get something of the same feeling watching Anonymous Club, Danny Cohen’s excellent 2021 documentary about Melbourne-based, Tasmania-raised singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett’s debut solo US tour. A decade before Anonymous Club was made, Barnett was preparing to release her first EP; not long after its release, she was supporting The Rolling Stones in London’s Hyde Park. It’s not quite as meteoric a rise as Nirvana’s, but it’s startling nonetheless, and Anonymous Club is a compelling exploration of the effect such a trajectory has on its subject. The film captures both the adrenaline rush of popularity – we see Barnett surveying the crowd at one of the tour’s early dates and gasping, “I can’t believe how many of you there are!” – and the accompanying comedown.

In the film’s early stages, the latter appears to outweigh the former: for every glimpse of onstage triumph, there are many more moments of vulnerability and self-doubt, of depression and anxiety. All are narrated by Barnett herself, via an audio diary, and soundtracked by brooding instrumental music, also composed by Barnett, in collaboration with Stella Mozgawa of Los Angeles band Warpaint. (Mozgawa produced Barnett’s most recent album, 2022’s Things Take Time, Take Time.)

This brings us to End of the Day, which collects 17 pieces of the music from Anonymous Club. All the tracks are instrumental – a surprise, given that Barnett’s greatest strength as a songwriter thus far has been her lyrics, with their signature mixture of rapid-fire wordplay, self-deprecating relatability and deadpan humour. But one suspects that’s the point. Late in the film Barnett apologises to Cohen for failing to keep up the audio diary, but adds, “In the process of not talking I feel like I’ve discovered something.”

This description applies perfectly to End of the Day, whose compositions are a world away from the perky riffs of songs such as “Avant Gardener” and “Pedestrian at Best”. The only sound we hear is Barnett’s electric guitar, layering sparse arpeggios and sketched hints of melody over single-note drones. The sense of space recalls Ry Cooder’s work on the iconic soundtrack to Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas – on both records, each note feels carefully chosen, and each is given time to echo and fade back into silence.

The tracks come from Anonymous Club’s scenes of time spent in the liminal surrounds of airports and identikit hotel rooms, or gazing out the window of a tour bus at a selection of brutally beautiful landscapes; one day a white-on-white expanse of snow, the next a bleached-bone desert landscape. But there’s also a warmth to the music: it conveys a sense of finding peace among the chaos, of renewed possibility.

In this sense, it seems significant that the record marks a conclusion: it will be the final release on Milk! Records, the label Barnett and former partner Jen Cloher founded in 2012. Whatever Barnett does next, it’ll be away from the place that has been a home for her entire career (both metaphorically and, sometimes, literally – in the film, one of the pieces here accompanies footage of the singer sleeping in the label’s Melbourne warehouse in the lead-up to the US tour, a world away from the cheering crowds and festival stages that would soon be greeting her).

It’s perhaps not surprising that after a decade of such whiplash-inducing contrasts, Barnett might want to retreat under her bridge for a while and think for a bit about what comes next. End of the Day certainly evokes the feeling of such a lacuna: it’s melancholy, but also shot through with optimism, and just as eloquent in its wordlessness as anything its creator has set down on paper.

Tom Hawking

Tom Hawking is a writer from Melbourne.

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