The title of Barns Courtney’s new album will no doubt be familiar to anyone who’s ever searched for something online and found themselves face to face with nothing. But 404 is an album that explores feelings of loss and bereftness inspired by life’s habit of throwing up its own error pages, with Barns exploring absence, frustration, and the never-ending search for something that seemed like it would always be there until one day, suddenly, it wasn’t: his childhood. “It’s painful knowing that something has gone, whether it’s a good time, a good feeling, a pleasant section of existence, or something physical. I’m always wondering: if you were to go back and find places you knew as a child, what would they look like?” Barns says.
There was a time not so long ago when a 16-year-old kid who’d spent his teens ricocheting between Seattle and Ipswich thought he was about to be the biggest star in the world. He and some mates got a deal with the biggest of all the big labels, then spent three years working with one of the planet’s hottest producers. What could go wrong? Well, plenty. “My entire life since I was 14 had been an upward trajectory,” is how Barns remembers it. “Then suddenly at the age of 22 I’m dropped, I’m totally, woefully unprepared for the real world. No qualifications. I didn’t bother learning to drive, because I thought I’d be driven everywhere. Thank God I didn’t have any success – I would have been a complete ass.”
The years in the wilderness that followed formed the basis of Barns’ 2017 debut album The Attractions Of Youth, a blistering shot of blues-driven rock that got this singular pop performer’s foot back in the door. Songs like Glitter & Gold and Fire became viral smashes, prompting a swell of support on both sides of the Atlantic that saw Barns performing on Conan O’Brien and opening for everyone from The Who, to Blur, to Ed Sheeran. Which brings us to 2019 and a body of work that finds this reflexive, meticulous pop storyteller delivering a minutely crafted album with big tunes, flashes of humour and no shortage of ambition. Kickstarted by 2018’s sparky, Atari-referencing single 99, it’s an album that delves back beyond the arrested development of Barns’ early-20s and into the teens he spent in Seattle and then Ipswich.
“The record’s partly about the bizarre modern formalisation of fun, and the strange ritual that we all go through from childhood into adulthood,” is how Barns describes one aspect of the music. And layered on top of that all, because there really is quite a lot going on in this album, is Barns’ experience of being out of town – and taking time out of real life – then coming back down to earth with a bump. “You go off and live this fantastical existence, play these shows and have fun, and you come back and you expect everyone to be the same as they were when you left,” he notes. “But they’ve all grown up. It’s like Peter Pan coming back from Neverland.”
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