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We Humbly Suggest That the Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile Record Kicks Ass

The two like-minded songwriters teamed up for 'Lotta Sea Lice,' an album that feels like a dream.

by Colin Joyce
13 October 2017, 11:42pm

Photo by Danny Cohen

Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett's new album started as a daydream. You sorta imagine a lot of things do for the two songwriters, each possessing dreary drawls and sleepy wits that more unimaginative types take for unrepentant stonerdom. But you don't necessarily need weed to keep your head in the clouds, some people just drift off naturally—which is what happened to Vile one day in 2015 in his hometown of Philadelphia. As a promo photoshoot unfolded around him, a song popped into his head, one he imagined Barnett—who he knew casually—singing along with him. "I had a fantasy that she would sing it with me," Vile told Rolling Stone in August.

So they met up in Melbourne and made "Over Everything," an anthem of artistic reclusion, then made more songs throughout the year, slowly unspooling a record together, like knitting a comfy sweater whenever they had some mutual free time. Such a story is worth relating not because the circumstances of its creation are particularly notable or that mythology about an album's creation is ever important to interpreting them, but precisely because it's exactly how you would imagine Vile and Barnett ending up in a room writing songs together. One dreamer reaches out to another, they sit down and play some music, make a record. Apparently there was a fair amount of pizza involved. So it goes.

Lotta Sea Lice, the resulting record out today on Matador, is a record as low-key as the catalogs of its creators and that backstory would suggest. On their own, both Vile and Barnett have occasionally dealt in more unhinged numbers, but songs universally float. Vile sorta addresses it on "Over Everything" when he dedicates a whole verse to singing about learning to wear earplugs as he's gotten older. Even at its most fleshed out, full-band moments, these songs are weightless, flowing through headphones—or even better, a big pair of speakers near an open window on a breezy day—acoustic guitars scribbling lazily as two comforting voices whisper in your ear.

That breeze is echoed in the record's lyrics too. In the past, they've grappled with the mysteries of the universe—the certainty of death and the possibilities of divine intervention in the everyday, but here those burdens are cast off. They sing instead of writing songs—both "Over Everything" and "Let It Go" have references to picking up their guitars and playing when things get tough—or of the things that unite them when they're thousands of miles apart.

One particularly memorable exchange happens at the beginning of "Continental Breakfast." Just after Vile confesses feelings of smallness and inferiority—Barnett answers with an affirmation, "I cherish my intercontinental friendships/We talk it over continental breakfast/In a hotel in east bumble-wherever/Somewhere on the sphere, around here." No matter how far apart they are, there's a likeminded person waiting somewhere to echo their thoughts back at them—the comforting voice of a friend at the end of the world's longest tin-can telephone. It's a sentiment that's underscored in the video for "Over Everything," a simple performance clip shot in their respective hometowns that features them sitting and playing guitar—Barnett wearing all black, Vile wearing white. Even their silhouettes are similar. They're shaggy-haired brunettes captured in monochrome, physical reminders of their similar mindsets—a fact that's made humorously literal as they mouth the words only to each other's lyrics, as if they're just two halves of the same brain.

Elsewhere they cover each other's songs—Barnett plays a version of Smoke Ring for My Halo's "Peeping Tomboy" that transforms its achy soul-searching into a grinning document of self-imposed loneliness. Vile leads a lilting rendition of "Outta the Woodwork," its message of never trying too hard a natural fit for his yawning voice. Or they cover some of their other favorites, Belly's breakup ballad "Untogether" or Barnett's partner Jen Cloher's "Fear Is Like a Forest." They're delivered effortlessly, naturally, but they also come with a sense of a mutual admiration, a glimmer and a glee that can only come when you're playing one of your favorite songs (To that end, the Rolling Stone article asserts that Vile was only daydreaming in the first place because Barnett is one of his favorite songwriters.)

It's almost a strange thing to hear these songs, like, streaming from a computer; it's a strange thing that they're documented at all. Two of the world's most storied songwriters cast aside their existential burdens and basically made a record about how nice it is to be friends and to have the freedom to play music for a living. Along the way, they play endearingly simple versions a few other songs they love, then they call it a day. You have to imagine that there are hundreds of hypothetical records like this in the annals of rock history—jam sessions uncaptured, happy, simple songs forgotten rather than put to tape. But as indie rock's most overachieving slackers, Barnett and Vile were keen enough to hit record.

In one of Vile's opening verses, he sings of being able to "forget 'bout all the other things / Like a big old ominous cloud in my periphery." That's ultimately what Lotta Sea Lice feels like, an escape from the everyday to somewhere above it all, where your usual concerns just pass on by. Something like a daydream.