Ali Barter wanted to call it quits after her 2017 debut, A Suitable Girl. That album’s mix of ‘90s grunge and alt-rock influences garnered healthy critical and popular acclaim, especially in her home country of Australia, but Barter found herself doubting the accolades and rejecting the material, her performances, and the production.
Despite a conviction to never write music again, new material soon started bubbling up and didn’t stop. The resulting collection, Hello, I’m Doing My Best (out Oct. 18 via Inertia), is 11 songs full of wry observations, keen wit, and brutally honest truth-telling, all coated in a sugary pop sweetness.
Hello, I’m Doing My Best’s appeal is largely based in Barter’s melodic, lyrical, and observational gifts. The songs are uniformly catchy, occupying a sweet spot between the fuzzy confessions of Weezer’s first two albums, Bully’s thrillingly ugly anthems, and Liz Phair’s blunt force lyricism. Barter used her experience making A Suitable Girl to guide the new album’s recording sessions, emphasizing a less-is-more approach – in her words, “I wanted it to sound gritty and a bit shit sometimes.”
The harsher sound is relative – the album is well-recorded and hardly abrasive, built around the fruitful musical collaboration between Barter and her romantic partner, Oscar Dawson. The rougher edged production choices are sympathetic, however, to songs that offer warts-and-all portrayals of Barter’s relationships with other people, her vices, her body, and other aspects of her life.
Single “Backseat” hits a sweet spot of fuzzy guitar riffage and girl-meets-boy storytelling, chronicling the story of Barter and Dawson meeting in what she told Consequence of Sound was her “first ever love song.” No part of her past or present is off-limits. “UR A Piece Of Shit” takes on the disaffected, slyly comedic air of ‘90s movies like Heathers and Clueless, with Barter intoning “Put your hands up if your dad had an affair / Put your hands up if your mother never cared / Put your hands up for eating disorders, yeah!” before delivering the punchline – “Put your hands up if you doctor touched you…” – and trailing off as the band careens back in. It’s a perfect mix of pop pleasure, real pain, and dark humor.
The self-examination continues throughout. Barter, now sober, recounts her “baffling” behavior while drinking on the punchy, upbeat “Cocktail Bar”; “Lester” explores her complicated relationship with her deceased father via characters, achieving the distance necessary to gain clarity. “January” is a perfect, three-minute summary of the angst that accompanies the trials and tribulations of New Year’s resolultion-style self-improvement – “Sober is cool / But fuck, it’s boring” is one of a handful of perfect, quotable lines littering the album.
If the album has a true thesis statement, it’s the chorus in penultimate track “This Girl”: “This girl / These shoes keep walking.” The excellent song is full of Deal sister vocal coos and harmonies, adding and subtracting elements over a simple chord progression to build and release tension. It’s as clear a statement about moving forward as any on the album, utilizing new musical elements in an anthemic, empowered celebration of Barter’s journey forward.
Hello, I’m Doing My Best is, at its core, an album about confronting, accepting, and moving on from the past. Barter is willing to take an honest, unflinching look in the mirror and take real stock of her reflection. She may not like what she sees, but she is compassionate enough to forgive and keep moving forward.
That Barter can both excoriate and love herself, distilling complicated feelings down with wit and hard-earned wisdom into two-to-four-minute pop nuggets, is an impressive feat. It’s all there in the title – she struggles, fails, and sometimes even succeeds, but no matter what the outcome, she is trying. Hello, I’m Doing My Best is ultimately a series of bitter pills coated in sugar. Barter reminds us we need to take our medicine even if we don’t like the taste – more often than not, it works.
Words by Andrew Ledford
Photo by Justin Higuchi