Album Review: Bartees Strange — Live Forever
Posted: by The Editor
In choosing the way we present ourselves to the world, we’re posed with a number of disparate options. We can choose to adopt a facade, a completely invented doppelgänger of ourselves, every detail meticulously designed toward fulfilling a certain purpose. Or we can make tiny compromises along the way, bending our will here and there as we build an understanding of what the world wants from us, taking the risk of letting those small changes pile up and swallow us whole.
Or we can do what Bartees Strange did—we can choose to be only ourselves. No facade, no compromise, no adopted false signifiers as a means of fitting ourselves and our work into easily identifiable boxes. We go all in on ourselves and have faith that we’ll find the people who’ll understand. Live Forever, the debut album from Bartees Strange, is the result of that kind of faith. Across eleven tracks that traverse and defy easy genre classifications and burst at the seams with creativity, originality, and heart, Live Forever signals the arrival of a visionary songwriter with one of the best debut albums in years.
Strange shows off his eclectic musical personality within the first few tracks on Live Forever, which opens with the hazy “Jealousy.” Here, Bartees establishes an atmosphere for the rest of the album not by selecting a representative track—really, there are no representative tracks on Live Forever—but by building a sonic environment within which he’ll spend the next ten songs fleshing out his own little world. “Jealousy” rings with a low, airy keyboard that carves out a space for Strange’s slow, deliberate vocals, breaking into a drawn-out falsetto as he attempts to compose his thoughts. “Cut out my anger,” he repeats with a level affect like a mantra, as if he’s trying to find some sort of clarity in these opening moments.
To go from “Jealousy,” which patiently reaches for calm and balance, to “Mustang,” with its electrified synthesizers and rollicking gait, feels a little like dunking your head in a bucket of icy water. “Mustang” was the first single released from Live Forever and it was a great choice—this is one of the most thrilling, invigorating songs to come out this year, the kind of anthem that should ring as loud as possible through every car stereo for years to come. In many ways, this song reminds me of how The Killers seemed to arrive onto the scene with Hot Fuss, fully formed and ready to go, bursting with confidence, pop prowess, and rock and roll intensity. But, lyrically, “Mustang” is about the path that Strange took to finding and fully embracing his identity, the track name itself a reference to the rural, largely white Oklahoma town where he grew up. ”I came with a mouth full of blood/ I’m hurt because no one can see me,” he shouts during the song’s scorching final moments, a convincing demand that he be heard for who he is.
“Mustang” is basically a perfect song in this style—a melding of rock, punk, and a twinge of ‘80s pop. It’s also the only track that sounds this way. “Boomer” has a similar charisma, but here Bartees swings between a brightly twinkling guitar line and a near-gothic southern rock, his voice oscillating courageously between ebullient rapping, pop-punk hook making, and soulful crooning. It flashes by in a whirlwind of sounds and styles, like you’ve just successfully cracked the code to listening to multiple songs at once.
This strident disregard for genre classification in some ways defines Strange’s approach on Live Forever, but maybe not in the way one might expect. It’s not that the songwriter avoids genre or that he strives to create his own genre on these songs. Rather, it’s more like Strange aims to create a definitive, complete statement in which he shows he can tackle just about any genre, usually multiple at once. “Kelly Rowland” is thoughtful, contemplative indie-tinged hip-hop. “In a Cab” sounds like it’s plucked from the soundtrack of an old noir film. “Flagey God” dives headfirst into intoxicating R&B and “Stone Meadows” builds steadily to a rain-soaked and impassioned indie rock climax. Deftly produced and sequenced in such a way that Strange’s wide artistic scope is never far from mind, the album completely avoids feeling patchwork or cobbled together—each shift in sound feeds directly into the next, with almost nothing sticking out like a sore thumb.
The single exception to this rule is “Mossblerd,” Strange’s take on an abrasive, industrial-sounding hip-hop song. But its jarring arrival after the shaded, club-ready “Flagey God” is the point. On “Mossblerd,” which Strange has said is “Mossberg (shotgun) and black nerd (blerd) combined,” the subject is genre itself, and the ways in which these classifications specifically work to hold back Black artists. “Genres keep us in our boxes,” Strange says in a low, dire voice against a clanking beat and a jittering, airless backdrop of noise. On “Mossblerd,” Bartees finds similarities between his experience of being denied opportunities for success based on his race and genre (“let a god’s wings burn”) and a wider perspective on systematic and racist oppression (“keep us from our options”). Here, Bartees effectively and purposely disrupts the flow of the album to deliver this searing indictment, his answer to which is to say “fuck ‘em all” and find success his own way—”If I can’t play the Beacon, then imma bring the Mossblerd.”
The final three tracks on Live Forever are his most emotionally forward, the acoustic-centered “Far” and “Fallen For You” showing off his singer-songwriter side, the first leading to a rowdy conclusion and the latter finding power in a sweet, bare space. The closing “Ghostly” is composed of two distinct halves, both dealing with loneliness from different perspectives. The first half gurgles with fizzing synthesizers as Strange reaches out to his loved ones in support (“Cuz, you don’t got to be so alone”), an act of love he hopes and fears for in the rising, chilly second half—“If I fall in, who’s gonna pull me up?” he asks in a soft, weary falsetto.
The honesty here, even in these more difficult moments, matches the uninhibited and unrestrained nature of the album as a whole. In choosing to show us his whole self on Live Forever, Bartees Strange is also always frank about the roadblocks, the joys, and the anxieties of presenting ourselves with no compromises and no facades. In this way, Live Forever is a stunning testament to being exactly who you are, and it’s also a truly incredible debut.
Jordan Walsh | @jordalsh
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