Published Oct 01, 2020What a year it's been for Bartees Strange. He kicked it off with Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy, an EP of five captivatingly reimagined covers of the National that turned the heads of not only online music nerds but actual famous people like Hayley Williams, Ryan Reynolds and the National's own Matt Berninger. Six months later, the Washington, DC, artist follows it up with a debut album that's enjoyed a good amount of hype among indie critics and eager fans. He did all this while working a full-time day job at a non-profit environmental organization and, of course, navigating a year in which the average person's mind has been more than preoccupied by a global pandemic, natural disasters and a treacherous climate of racism and political chaos. But as Live Forever clearly demonstrates, Bartees Strange is not an average person.
Imagine this: TV on the Radio, Moses Sumney, Burial, Kings of Leon, Death Grips, the Killers and both the early and recent work of Bon Iver — all of these sounds colliding in one place. It's an unprecedented concoction, and it works. Goddamn it, how does it work?
It's challenging to be truly "genre-defying" without being in the grips of an identity crisis. But the reason Live Forever works is that Strange isn't trying to do too much; what we're hearing is an expression of all the art and experience that's inside him. It isn't an abundance of ideas lumped into a pile. It's held together by Strange's versatile, distinct voice and his singularly ambitious creative vision. It doesn't defy genre so much as ignore the lines between them and embrace the multiplicity of Strange's musical being. It's music for people who love music.
"Boomer" is the epitome of this. Strange effortlessly raps over cascading post-punk guitars, breaks into a soulful rock 'n' roll chorus, traverses a bridge section of straight-up Delta blues, and closes it out with a bit of '90s power-pop and just a touch of breezy surf-rock. Strange's singing voice is full, strong and robust — the result of a childhood spent in the opera — as he muses on spirituality while recalling a night spent smoking up with his prideful dad. "Boomer" sounds like a lot of things, but nothing sounds like "Boomer."
There's also "Mustang," an infectious guitar-pop song about Strange's upbringing in his "overwhelmingly white and racist" hometown in Oklahoma, featuring crunchy guitars and a sparkling synth refrain, interlaced with sly cuts toward his roots in hardcore punk. Then there's the jazzy "In a Cab," the rave-ready "Flagey God" and the fluid R&B of "Kelly Rowland." Before moving into late-album tracks "Far" and "Fallen for You," which sound like they're from the vaults of early Bon Iver and City and Colour, you'll first be violently plunged into "Mossblerd," a dark, grimy, bass-heavy hip-hop track that warps and warbles ominously as Strange raps, "These genres keep us in our boxes." The shape-shifting idiosyncrasy of it all is underpinned by important thoughts on Black life and the racist systems — white supremacy, the prison-industrial complex, cultural stereotyping and industry-wide underrepresentation — that have shaped the perspectives and lived experiences of Strange as an artist and as a person.
Live Forever has that John Coltrane philosophy: "I start in the middle of a sentence and move both directions at once," the sax legend once said. Strange's future efforts may apply that way of thinking with even greater focus and intent, blending his influences into a one-of-a-kind sound (as "Boomer" does so impeccably), rather than serving them up side by side.
As intriguing as Strange's music already is, Live Forever demonstrates that there's still tremendous potential left to unlock. The word is that at the time of Live Forever's release, he'll have already entered the studio to work on a second album. Whenever that drops, it's entirely possible that it will be unanimously hailed as one of the best indie albums of that year. Live Forever is itself not quite a masterpiece, but it's a clear picture of someone who's destined for greatness. Bartees Strange is a visionary artist worth watching closely. (Memory Music)