A little over two years ago, I was speaking with someone who toured with Bartees Strange, who at that point was an unknown. His tourmate said, blankly, “he’s going to be huge”. I didn’t know that at the time, but he was right. With Live Forever, Bartees Strange plants himself as a once-in-a-generation talent.
The England-born, Germany, Greenland, and eventually Oklahoma raised musician played in a series of indie rock bands before first turning heads with covers of songs by the National. While those were reinventions of well-loved tracks, they still didn’t paint the picture of what would come next from this artist.
How do you even describe a record in this scope? After the atmospheric vocal opener of “Jealousy” comes “Mustang”, a soaring, bombastic slash and burn opener, full of Indie rock guitars and crystalline synth stabs. Strange alternates between quiet verse vocals and a thrilling shout in the chorus. The guitars drag and sashay at parts. Music like this is supposed to be loud and enthralling, but never has it felt so *physical*.
Next up is “Boomer”, a thrilling track that alternates between guitars and rapped vocals and is actually about young Bartees getting stoned with his dad for the first time. This ability to transcend genre should be no surprise, as it’s in his blood: Bartees’s mom is a classically trained opera singer and multi-instrumentalist.
“Kelly Rowland” doesn’t even attempt to hide its namesake. It’s a short track that even goes as far as to sample “Dilemma” by Nelly and Kelly Rowland. “In A Cab” is built on classic Jazz horns that ride just above post-punk guitars, and tracks like “Flagey God” ditches guitars entirely to create an ethereal house soundscape. “Mossblerd”, sounds like sound disintegrating under Strange’s plainspoken rap.
Then, again, he switches it up. “Far”, a spare acoustic ballad actually wouldn’t sound too out of place on the first Bon Iver record: “I miss the rain on my face/If I could walk on water/I would be at your place,” he sings. It’s this sort of imagery that is so vibrant throughout the record, and by the time the distorted guitars show up in the last minute of the song, the heft of the words matches the instrumentation. These left turns don’t feel like they’re music for music’s sake, they feel like vessels for matching Bartees Strange power.
The album closes with “Ghostly,” a song built on pinging synths. It’s something you’d listen to alone, driving down the highway with the windows down. It’s music for the nighttime. He alternates telling a story in the past and then halfway through, travels to the future to reflect on it years. It’s a staggering work and is emblematic for the whole album. Strange is always looking forward, never back.
Live Forever is not just a debut record, it’s a mind-blowing first salvo from Bartees Strange. It’s a record that exhilarates with the breadth of stylistic changes that always feel organic and vibrant. Whatever comes next from Bartees Strange probably won’t sound anything like this, and the possibilities of what comes next are so exciting to imagine.
- Brendan Hilliard, Obviate Media
This review was written by Brendan Hilliard, of Obviate Media. Obviate Media is a Chicago-based blog covering music and pop culture. Check them out, here: Obviate Media.