Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: Bartees Strange Live Forever

“Boomer” takes off like a rocket. There’s not a second wasted before Bartees Strange is directly in your ears, his cadence precise and pointed. He raps over spindly guitars and pulsing drums, as the song zigzags all over the place through a smear of different styles. It’s a lot to take in, but by sheer force of will and musicianship, Strange makes it all work. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell exactly where I want to go,” he sings during its searing chorus, winking and self-aware. “I know it don’t show.” Indeed it does not. He doesn’t break a sweat on “Boomer” — instead, he sounds cocky, assured, and absolutely unstoppable.

Live Forever, his debut album under the Bartees Strange name, is invigorating and inspirational. It’s a dizzying blend of genre work, combining the sounds of rock, rap, country, soul — genres that, as Strange is apt to point out, were all shaped by Black artists — and fusing them together into a staggering mangle of influences. Live Forever is both a reclamation of these sounds and a joyous celebration of them. Before Live Forever, Strange established his name through a collection of the National covers, reimagining their songs with a ferocious intensity and a playful ear. Strange is hyperconscious of what he’s doing by mashing up all of these disparate sounds together — he even references it on some of his songs — and he makes all these sounds sound not so disparate, all part of a fluid conversation in music history.

Born Bartees Cox Jr., his chosen stage name is a truncated version of his previous project Bartees & The Strange Fruit, and by definition it paints him as an outsider, as someone who is learning to grow comfortable with causing discomfort. The biggest songs on Live Forever, “Boomer” and lead single “Mustang,” are stuffed with this strangeness, spilling out into some of the most driving and anthemic music of the year, regardless of what genre you want to pin to it. Bartees Strange is a simple but powerful name, as is the title of his debut, Live Forever, in that it’s his end goal: Create music that will become immortal.

Everything that Strange makes conveys a jittery, boundless creativity. Before becoming a full-time musician, he worked in communications for a nonprofit organization. His drive reminds me of so many endlessly creative people that I’ve stumbled across in life, those who are working office jobs that aren’t necessarily fulfilling but are necessary to pay the bills, who have a fervent imagination and only need to right opportunity to have it all come tumbling out. But those opportunities are rare, if not a complete fantasy concocted to always give one an out from pursuing their dreams. “It took me a long time to realize that I could build whatever world I wanted,” Strange said in our recent profile of him. “I didn’t have to wait for someone to pick me.”

Live Forever is a fully-realized world, one that jumps around from sound to sound but is held together by Strange’s presence. It’s rare to hear someone have so much presence right out of the gate, but Strange owns every decision that he makes. What could be awkward turns to transcendence in his hands. His voice, which he honed singing opera in churches with his family while growing up, is a marvel, able to adapt to whatever he throws at it. It’s the only element tying everything together because throughout Live Forever, you never really know what to expect. Songs start one place and end somewhere completely different. A warbling acoustic number like “Far” takes its time turning up the temperature, sharp drum hits breaking out into a bluesy and distorted conclusion. On “Flagey God,” he uses sputtering production inspired by Burial and Jai Paul for a smooth shuffle that sounds like it could almost have a home on pop radio. But it’s sandwiched in between the cavernous “Stone Meadows,” which scales up to a full-throated emo breakdown, and “Mossblerd,” an abrasive bap that explicitly spells out Strange’s disdain for staying in one lane: “Genres keep us in our boxes.”

His songs are often concerned with being trapped, whether by a label or his circumstance of being Black in a country that does not value Black lives. He does not want to be pigeonholed into the kind of music that he can create or the type of person he can be. “To have a life you love but know you’re undeserving,” he sings during a fleeting moment of contentment on “Mustang,” before switching to bare confessional mode: “Last night I got so fucked up near lost my job/ It’s nice to think that folks are near, waking up was hard this year/ But If I didn’t move the way I did, then tell me how else could I be?”

Live Forever serves as an exploration of the many ways one could be, if only given the right opportunity. The album ends on a love song that’s afraid to commit to any one thing. “Feel ghostly bad, way beyond description,” Strange sings on it. “I feel sad, not because I miss her/ I don’t want nothing I could lose.” The act of putting yourself out there is scary, whether it’s walking out the door every day or releasing an album full of songs that take risks that not everyone will understand. The fear of failure can be crippling, but Live Forever is a testament to the power of taking chances in order to make great art.

Live Forever is out 10/2 via Memory Music. Pre-order it here.

Other albums of note out this week:
• Jónsi’s disorienting and beautiful Shiver.
• Shamir’s sharp and expressive Shamir.
• Deerhoof’s dizzying covers album Love-Lore.
• Cartalk’s explosive and promising debut Pass Like Pollen.
• Eartheater’s cascading Phoenix: Flames Are Dew Upon My Skin.
• Death Valley Girls’ spacey and fuzzed-out Under The Spell Of Joy.
• Slipknot leader Corey Taylor‘s solo album CMFT.
• Blackpink’s The Album.
• Mariah Carey’s The Rarities.
• The Nude Party’s Midnight Manor.
• Dawes’ Good Luck With Whatever.
• Melanie C of the Spice Girls’ Melanie C.
• Aloe Blacc’s All Love Everything.
• William Shatner’s The Blues.
• Kurt Vile’s Speed, Sound, Lonely KV EP.
• Women’s Public Strain anniversary companion Rarities 2007-2010.
• Isola’s EP 1.
• Jenny Owen Youngs’ extended Night Shift EP.
• mxmtoon’s dusk EP.
• Melkbelly leader Miranda Winters’ new 7″.
• Devonté Hynes’s score for the HBO series We Are Who We Are.
• Queen & Adam Lambert’s live album Queen + Adam Live Around The World.
• Dolly Parton’s A Holly Dolly Christmas.

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