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Wednesday, April 24, 2024
The Observer

Cure writer's block with ‘Lotta Sea Lice’

Dominique DeMoe | The Observer

Writing sucks. As deadlines approach, I reach into the cavernous vestibules of my idle brain, shine a feeble light onto its damp walls and find nothing. My phone pings, sending up a dopamine flare. For the next 30 minutes, memes captivate my world. The clock ticks. I return to my documents, beat out a few words, study them scornfully and cast them aside. The clock ticks. I look to writers — the good ones (supposedly) — for guidance. “What was it that Kurt Vonnegut said?” I ask myself. Then, I recall. “First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” Hmm, a bit harsh. I dig deeper through the insensitive man’s catalogue, only to find a mirror — “When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.” At this point, I’ve had it with Vonnegut. It’s time to find a new Kurt, or, if we’re lucky, a Kurt and Courtney combo.

I conduct a musical search, initially stumbling across an immensely talented Kurt and Courtney pair, but with a tragic history. Their volatile emotional content mingles with the heightened affections of my writer’s block. The clock ticks, and I approach the boom.

Reverberated jangles shamble through my headphones, the voice of a third Kurt. “When I’m all alone on my own by my lonesome / And there ain’t a single ‘nother soul around.” I take stock of my surroundings, the lack of people. This Kurt is onto something. “I wanna dig into my guitar and bend a blues riff that hangs,” he sings, as if reaching out to give my procrastinating soul a warm hug. “Over Everything.” My blank screen vanishes, and I listen, entranced. “When I’m by myself and it’s daytime cuz down-under / Or wherever it is I live when it’s evening,” a second Courtney responds. “You know I speed read the morning news and come up with my own little song also.”

Finally, I’ve found the right Kurt — Kurt Vile — and the right Courtney — Courtney Barnett — to satisfy my peculiar wavelength. Their advice comes simply, but not quite monotone, via shared verses.

Vile and Barnett trail my steps around the lake, convincing my worried mind to “Let it Go.” “Keep on rolling on the impulse,” Barnett directs. “Ignore backstage lethargy.” Their snare drum mimics my uneven walk and communicates the rhythms of my condensed heartbeat. “What comes first, the chorus or the verse?” Barnett asks, before admitting, “I’m a bit blocked right now.” I think for the moment, unable to decide. Panic accumulates. “Let it go,” I remember.

My “fear,” they tell me, “is like a forest.” There are “Books waiting to be written” and “Lovers waiting to be loved,” but I can’t escape “the dark of the unknown.” Am I a writer?  Can I create? The song’s words, courtesy of Barnett’s wife Jen Cloher, illuminate a path to progress — one I must follow.

The shimmers of past success provide yet another creative foothold. Vile, receding to the earliest years of Barnett’s songwriting, acquaints one of her thumping blues numbers and rides it “Out of the Woodwork.” The duos toasty blues licks prop me up, while Barnett’s poetics hypnotize Vile and me. “It must be tiring trying so hard / To look like you’re not really trying at all.” The pain of the words belies Vile’s relaxed delivery. Nihilism, cynicism, sloth — none of it serves the artist. They merely illustrate the emptiness.

When I return to my laptop, I’m not alone anymore. Vile and Barnett welcome me into their “Intercontinental Friendship.” Through collaboration, they invite me to enjoy melody without fear, if only for a brief moment. The clock stops ticking. “I kick a can way up into the sun, man.” And I write. Words disperse from my fingers, and I watch them come like “Watchin’ the waves come in at night.” Harmonies layer my fundamental melodies. A rich text (or at least what my sleep-deprived brain thinks is a rich text) emerges. For a moment, when the clock stops ticking, Barnett, Vile and I are content.

I finish, the clock starts ticking again and familiarity takes over. The initial ambition, the blankness, the pain, the second push, the contentment, the finish — they’ve all happened before, in the same sequence. Vile and Barnett tell me I’m “On script every night / Like a well-rehearsed stage show.”  They dig in, “What, do you think that your special?” Looking over my piece, I ask myself the same question.

The clock keeps ticking, and I plan to write again — something special, I hope.


Artist: Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile

Album: “Lotta Sea Lice”

Label: Matador

Favorite Track: “Continental Breakfast”

If you like: Courtney Barnett, Kurt Vile, Sharon Van Etten

Shamrocks: 4 out of 5