Sometimes I get stuck on songs, listening to them so much their meaning explodes and becomes more than what it actually is. Songs are discussed to death, footnoted to the nth degree. If anything my obsession and over analysis says more about me than anything else. Currently, I’m stuck on Courtney Barnett’s “Depreston”.
“You said we should look out further/I guess it wouldn’t hurt us.” Courtney Barnett’s opening lines tend to be some my favorites and this one is no different. If anything it may be her best, reconciling so many of the songs themes in just two lines. There is a feeling of pressure (should) and uncertainty (guess) of change within the lyrics, just barely obscuring a sense of fear (hurt). As the verse goes on, Barnett’s narration focuses on amenities she doesn’t need any more. She and her partner seem to be living in city drowning in coffee shops, which they have outgrown with their percolator. Outgrown. Although it may seem like a small step “saving twenty three dollars a week”, it’s the push that gets them started on their journey forward, for better or worse.
As they move in their search for a house away from the city, they land in Preston. Any hesitations of leaving the security of the city are multiplied within moments of arriving in the just out of the city suburb of Melbourne. They see a man getting arrested and the house in question is dreary and typical of the edge between the bright lights and quiet nights. “How’s that for first impressions? This place seems depressing.” Barnett is already putting on the breaks, but there’s something hidden within the lack of desire to move.
That hidden notion comes to light from the narration of the real estate agent. He introduces one of the biggest themes of the song, that of life and death. The person showing the house unknowingly juxtaposes banality and severity as he speaks with Barnett and her partner. It begins as generalities of what makes the cozy home nice, the garden and garage, but turns into a sad moment of honesty. “And it’s going pretty cheap you say/well it’s a deceased estate.” This takes the narrator to the edge of her problem with growing up, looking past the responsibilities of the new home and into becoming old and facing death. The realtor tries to eschew that awkwardness of bringing up mortality and endings, “Aren’t the pressed metal ceilings great?”, but simply makes the whole thing all the more uncomfortable.
Symbols of twilight years begin to illuminate the state of the home; from the support hand rail she finds in the shower and the little storage canisters. These images are innocuous, but when placed together create this feeling of growing too old to quickly. The verse culminates with the most important image: “A photo of a young man in van in Vietnam”. Depending on your own past, you could see the photo as a lost lover or a presumably good time amidst a terrible past, or any number of things. What they all have in common is that it is a memory worthy of having been captured and kept. No matter where your own memory lies, this image brings forth beauty and sadness of a life already lived that settled here, in the California bungalow.
This sort-of revelation continues to dwell as the narrator stop caring about the house and its fixtures. She ignores them for what moving out into suburbia to house actually means to her and her partner. “And I wonder what she bought it for?” could easily be construed as a monetary quandary (and probably should be), but its more affecting beneath its surface. The line asks a myriad of questions that the narrator ponders about the deceased owner and of ultimately of herself. Why did she move to such a place? What did she give up for this life? Was what she bought it for worth it?
The final echoing words bring the questions and fear into a current prospective, one that isn’t as optimistic as it would seem. It’s an off the cuff suggestion that acts as declaration of societal whims being enforced on the narrator, a statement that presumes where you should be in life and probably aren’t. “If you’ve got a/spare half a million/you could knock it down/and start rebuilding”. The real estate agents’ voice throughout the song has had a darkly funny tone throughout, but never as accidentally condescending as it is here. It places a huge and pretty unrealistic weight onto the narrator and her partner by assuming that there’s just 500 grand lying around their apartment to finance the tear down and rebuilding of a new home. Moreover, the line goes beyond the idea of the house in Preston and relays a double meaning that settles on Barnett herself. It urges for reinvention, rejuvenation, but at a cost. It gives off the depressing feeling that any attempt to better yourself or start anew requires past success. But if you’re already down, how can you ever get better? Barnett’s delivery of the line, jumping between from hopeful to lackadaisical, implies it’s easier said than done.
The song lies in a realm of vacillation and never really answers the problems at hand. Barnett leaves it on you to imagine all her troubles and add on all the issues you are dealing with in order to answer the problems for yourself. The song languishes in not really knowing what to do when it comes to the very idea of growing up /old and mortality. The prevalent fear in the song is that grass may very well not be greener on the more adult side of life. It does after all mean you’re closer to an end you never really thought of traveling to till now. You shouldn’t leave the song feeling worse off than you started, despite of the realtor, the former owner, and the idea that you should be father along than you are. Instead listen to it anew and try to figure out where to go from this turning point, because right now that’s what matters.