One of the best things about Courtney Barnett is the impression she's only going to get better.
Fiercely languid, the post-punk indie rocker, 30, doesn't so much balance in the bittersweet spot where you have to laugh if you don't want to cry as teeter between sincerity and sarcasm. It's a high-wire act performed inches from the ground, all tension and excitement but with no real harm in stepping off at any moment.
Those opposing forces were evident at the Sydney Opera House on Thursday night from the first line of Hopefulessness, the opener from her new album: "You know what they say, no one's born to hate." Somehow both deadpan and plaintive while borrowing from Nelson Mandela, it's all driving bass that builds to bleakness.
Recent single City Feels Pretty injects sparkle before devolving into grittier guitar arrangements, as if peeling away layers to get to a grimy truth. It's indicative of Barnett's newer work, which tends to be a bit bolder musically, and taps into more universal themes, whereas the earlier material relies more heavily on rambling lyrics about the minutiae of life.
That's not to say her new album has abandoned oversharing: it's called Tell Me How You Really Feel and has a song titled Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Self Confidence which delivers on its promise. Nameless, Faceless has a vivid lyric about holding keys between fingers to ward off attackers in the park, but it's decidedly spooky musically and borrows as much from Kurt Cobain as Margaret Atwood.
Another Kurt comes to mind with the songs from her debut album, and not collaborator Kurt Vile. As she shares her worries about panic attacks while gardening and observation a percolator is saving her $23 a week it's almost as if Kurt Vonnegut had a guitar and Chrissie Hynde haircut. It's a bit bamboozling, a bit funny, a bit sad, and you're not entirely sure where you're going until you get there.
From the debut album, Avant Gardener, Depreston and Elevator Operator get the best responses from a crowd that seemed a little too comfortable in the cushioned Concert Hall seats. Explicitly Melbourne in their references, her wit and humour carried the day. Her voice was strong and her guitarwork impressive.
It's hard to fault an artist in top form who runs through 22 songs, but tropes emerge and there are moments the show feels repetitive. Two or three albums down the track, as she lifts the tightrope further from the ground and ventures further with her already impressive songwriting, she could become the defining voice of her generation.
Courtney Barnett plays at the Sydney Opera House on Saturday, August 25.
Michael Ruffles is a journalist and desk editor at the Sydney Morning Herald.