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Barns Courtney channels the 90s in sophomore album, “404”

Singer-songwriter Barns Courtney first gained attention around 2015 with his gritty Folk-Blues songs, “Fire” and “Glitter and Gold.” The rest of his accompanying debut album can be described very similarly, as many of the songs followed a rustic, bold style that gave him an edgy Southern Rock image. Now he’s shifted to a somewhat retro direction, focusing the album on his own nostalgia and facing the reality of leaving his childhood behind. Even the title, 404, is meant to reference the error message that would pop up particularly often in the 90s when a website no longer functioned.

Courtney is a pretty fun, quirky guy, which didn’t show a lot in his first album. But for the whole first half of 404, especially in the music videos going along with the first few tracks, you get to see the more humorous side of him. “Hollow,” for example, has a nice upbeat rhythm with some 80s/90s techno influence. The video shows him as a patient in a hospital ward being examined and treated for being completely “hollow” on the inside. As the doctors observe the inside of Courtney’s body, all they find is himself and his band playing Rock, along with other music-related objects such as speakers, circuits, etc. So the video’s implication is that Courtney feels emotionally empty, except towards music.

A catchy tune that contains an underlying sadness is a reoccurring theme in this album. The next track, “You And I,” has a very similar style, but about lovesickness. A few lyrics, like “Mixtape’s wearing down,” along with the music video, suggest that he’s talking about a childhood/high school sweetheart. The anthemic “99” follows as the first single from the album that was released back in 2018, and is straightforwardly dedicated to his upbringing in the 90s. “London Girls” and “Fun Never Ends” also follow the streak of fun, retro Rock songs that refer to Courtney’s past experiences and relationships. A slight difference with “Fun Never Ends,” however, is it’s actually the most genuinely lighthearted track in both melody and lyrics.

The second half of the album takes a bit of a turn. “Boy Like Me” brings the tempo down a bit, circling around the thought of loneliness. Courtney’s overall mindset here can be represented by the lines “It’s all in my head, lying lonely in my bed. Oh no, I can’t believe there ain’t no love for a boy like me.” It’s like the official beginning of having to face the reality of adulthood. The tempo drops a bit more with “The Kids Are Alright.” It’s laced with a certain bittersweet tone that goes back to nostalgia, while also expressing some of the struggles that came both as a child and during the process of growing into an adult.

The music starts to develop an edgier tone with “Castaway.” Courtney takes up a light falsetto for the verses, mostly accompanied by pounding drums and a retro-style bass riff that give it a bold sound. The chorus is almost like a bass drop as the instrumentation and Courtney’s belting vocals suddenly power through, driving the depth and emotion. It seems to be a personal story, likely about a past relationship. The most telling line is “Like in the movie, Up on the big screen, These happy endings come and go.” He mourns over the loss of these good memories that likely ended badly. And with lines like “Into a dark dream, Into the black sea, We could be happy” he dreams of a time or place where this could have been fixed.

Stepping farther into intensity, “Babylon” is a thoroughly booming song about a sinner. It’s dark and dramatic, giving a similar Southern Rock sound that songs like “Fire” had, but still having it’s own fresh flare that belongs in 404. It follows the journey of someone who’s lived a life of sin, heading towards the biblical city of “evil.” Though Babylon was known to have been in the desert, Courtney threw in some cosmic lyrics that may feel a bit out of place: “What planet are you on, what constellations, You’re floating like a ghost out into the unknown…to the gates of Babylon.” So he’s traveling through space, and perhaps time, to get there. These lines could imply a futuristic sound, but the song’s style gives the fitting image of looking across a hot desert to the horizon, supporting a glowing sun in a red sky.

Concluding the album, “Cannonball” has a similar dramatic tone, but in a way that’s lighter and airier, rather than having the same dark intensity of “Babylon.” It’s a nice way to ease out of the album. The starting lyric is “Yeah I’m feeling so down, Like my head could touch the ground. Oh I’m feeling so sick of these voices in my head,” giving a generally clear image of what this song is about. It’s about being in a very dark mental state, and the suffering thoughts and feelings that come alongside it. He relates himself to a cannonball because these thoughts make him feel like something heavy crashing down into the earth. Throughout most of the song there’s a sortof warped sound accompanying the vocals, creating something like a hazy image that could represent the mind in this situation. Courtney wanted this track to represent the realization that your childhood is over, along with the innocent joy and hopefulness that went with it (EntertainmentVoice.com).

404 may be surprisingly different from what some fans expected, but Courtney made it genuine, to go with what he felt during this writing process. And he made sure the album told a story. From track to track it followed a gradual decrease in tempo, giving a smooth transition from the bittersweetness of remembering simpler times, to the grim understanding that those times won’t reemerge.

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