The singer-songwriter took to Brooklyn’s National Sawdust for an experimental rendition of her latest record, ‘End Of The Day’
Courtney Barnett is known for her ability to turn a phrase, but her most recent album doesn’t have any words. The Australian singer-songwriter released End Of The Day this September, a collection of 17 instrumental improvisations produced with frequent collaborator Stella Mozgawa (best-known as the drummer for the band Warpaint). To commemorate the record’s release, the duo took to Brooklyn’s National Sawdust for a set of shows.
Barnett first conceived of the album as a score to the 2021 documentary Anonymous Club; the film follows the musician across three years, exploring the challenges of artistic success—and its adverse effects on mental health—during the world tour of her album Tell Me How You Really Feel. In a review for Pitchfork, Marc Hogan described the documentary as “a poignant reminder that even artists whose confessional style makes us feel like we know them might be suffering unseen existential crises.”
If the music from End Of The Day sprang from the turbulent wells of rock stardom, then the album’s timbre suggests Barnett has found some respite from existential crises—at least for now. All of the jaded, witty observations that anchored the musician’s earlier work are absent. Listening to the meditative guitar arpeggios on the titular track, it’s hard not to be induced into a state of relaxation. Song titles like “Life Balance,” “Floating Down,” and “Spring Ascends” speak for themselves. End Of The Day sounds like smoke curling from a stick of patchouli.
Yet at the intimate Brooklyn venue, the artist accessed darker, more complex moments in the music. Following a heartfelt opening act from singer-songwriter Anjimile, Barnett took the stage, delving straight into the sound, sans introduction. While End Of The Day is divided into discrete, titled tracks, Barnett and Mozgawa played for over half an hour, without any discernible transition. The pair improvised within the album’s framework, confidently straying from the recording; the result was richer and more imposing than the ambient tranquility produced in the studio.
“She consistently transformed the sounds emanating from her amp, subverting expectations for what the guitar is capable of.”
A music video Barnett released in July was projected on the wall behind the stage. Directed by Claire Marie Vogel, the film shows the artist walking around the landscape surrounding Niagara Falls. The camera lingers behind Barnett, and we never see her face up close. Yellow wildflowers dot pale green hills. The weather is overcast, and she wears a blue raincoat, rendering her clearly visible in the washed-out landscape. The seven-minute film was retrofitted to the venue and extended to fill the 30-minute set. Atmospheric LEDs glowed green and blue along the base of the stage.
A good deal of the show’s pleasure came from discovering how Barnett fashioned her soundscape. Much of the album’s texture came not from an Abelton amalgamation of ones and zeros, but from everyday, physical objects. Barnett had an entire toolbox at her disposal: A steel bar (slide-guitar style), a violin bow, an armada of guitar pedals, and a yellow No. 2 pencil. She consistently transformed the sounds emanating from her amp, subverting expectations for what the guitar is capable of. Tapping the pencil on its body, Barnett could create a cacophonous crash that sounded like someone banging on a garage door. Later, guitar in lap, she drew a bow across its strings, like a metalworker cutting through steel. The location for the performance felt apt: A hundred years ago, the building was a sawdust factory. Barnett’s improvisations summoned ghosts.
Barnett is a generous performer. After playing through End Of The Day, she rewarded the audience with solo renditions of hits like “Avant Gardener” and “Sunday Roast.” During the outro of the latter song, the audience became a choir, echoing the lyrics—“Keep on keeping on”—back to the singer. Barnett ended the night with an encore cover of Chastity Belt’s “Different Now,” which was recently released as a single to celebrate the band’s 10th anniversary.
“Imagine if I ended with an instrumental song,” Barnett said, with a laugh. She was implying that the crowd could only take so much of her musical tinkerings. But I don’t think anyone would have cared. Barnett’s music transfixes, with or without words.