I first heard “Small Poppies” when Courtney Barnett opened for the National a few summers ago in Prospect Park. I didn’t really know any of her music then, but I distinctly remember someone going absolutely ape in the crowd when she sang this song, screaming each word with hands flying in the air. And I get why.
We love a seven minute slow build. Especially one jammed with symbolism and clever songwriting, in this case examining what justice looks like.
Like Whitman, Barnett opens the song by contemplating life through a blade of grass:
I stare at the lawn, it's Wednesday morning It needs a cut but I leave it growing All different sizes and all shades of green Slashing it down just seems kind of mean
We learn a lot about the speaker early on. She’s ambivalent for one, and a little rebellious in that she’s reluctant to intervene in the natural course of things. As the narrative moves on, admiring nature’s beauty quickly leads her into a deeper contemplation about a relationship gone awry: “Who am I to deny myself a pawn for you to use?”
Despite the details we gather about the rift (“it’s a pain that I keep seeing your name”), she doesn’t seem interested in fighting. In fact, she even sounds bored by the idea, with her even-keeled monotone voice weaving in and out between impressive, bluesy guitar riffs.
I don't know quite who I am, oh but man I am trying I make mistakes until I get it right An eye for an eye for an eye for an eye for an eye I don't agree with that, why can't we just talk nice?
In that first line, the steady one beat per word is sung as one big mouthful (i-don’t-know-quite-who-i-am-oh-but-man-i-am-trying) and makes this earworm especially catchy. Again positioned as the unbothered pacifist in the face of tempting eye-for-an-eye justice, there is a new energy and sense of urgency sparked in this chorus.
The name of the song is relevant here, too, as poppy flowers have come to symbolize everything from peace to death. The lines “Oh! The calamity…/Oh! The humanity” also serve as allusions to disaster, or war-time situations even. But instead of fighting, the speaker would rather disappear into obscurity or fall asleep…or so we think.
Though she’s been dropping hints of dissatisfaction (“But I’m sure it’s a bore being you”), it’s not until after the 4 minute mark that we build toward more anger, and a renewed energy in the final return of the chorus. This is precisely when the girl at the concert started to lose her shit (and you will too!).
In the end, it’s a bit hazy on whether the speaker here is too nice to kill a fly (“slashing it down just seems kind of mean”) or ready to get seriously violent with the person she’s addressing. “I dreamed I stabbed you with a coat hanger wire” is the poignant last line of the song.
We’re left with this dreamy thought, and there’s nothing to do but jam the f*ck out to the last few minutes of the song.