Bartees Strange has made it. On his debut album Live Forever, the musician born Bartees Cox Jr. sounded hungry and eager for the spotlight. The album’s title suggested immortality, imagined a way one could leave behind a lasting impression on the world. But there was always a chance that it wouldn’t work out — that, like so many albums that exhibit such a creative spark, Live Forever would fail to start a fire and instead become a promising album whose promise just didn’t pan out. He tried to integrate that uncertainty into the recording process for his sophomore record. On the day that his first LP was released in 2020, Cox and his bandmates were in the studio, laying down songs that would become some of Farm To Table’s most emotional moments: the surging opener “Heavy Heart,” the empathetic and tender “Hold The Line.” Cox didn’t have to worry, though. Live Forever succeeded in its goal; it made Bartees Strange one of the most exciting prospects in music today.
On Farm To Table — his first album for the indie powerhouse 4AD — Cox grapples with what if feels like to finally achieve what you’ve always dreamed about. The album’s name this time around is a reference to his newfound success: “I used to be on a farm, but now I’m at the table,” Cox explained to Rolling Stone, referencing his childhood that was spent mostly in Oklahoma. It also evokes, funnily enough, a restaurant gathering: good friends, good (locally sourced) food, a sense of warmth and community. Both of those meanings make sense within the context of Farm To Table, which places an emphasis on family, both blood and chosen, the people that pushed Cox to be who he always wanted to be.
With Live Forever, much was made of the way that Bartees Strange slipped between genres with an impressive fluidity. Sounds got sucked into Cox’s maelstrom and came out on the other side feeling both revitalized and timeless. There’s still plenty of the same sort of genre-jumping on Farm To Table — songs that start with acoustic guitars and explode into fireworks, ones that begin raging and end up sounding isolated and alone. Cox is as adept at navigating and building out those transitions as he was on his debut, all tied together by that magnificent voice. But there’s less freneticism here than there was on Live Forever, where he was trying to prove himself at every turn. On my first few listens, I thought that maybe this was a weakness in the album — that it’s not coursing with energy in the same way his first one was — but as I’ve spent more time with it, I’ve come to appreciate the more laidback nature of Farm To Table. Cox allows himself to just vibe out. He lets himself breathe, content to know that all the sweat was worth it.
That’s not to say that Farm To Table completely lacks the exhilarating dynamics of his debut. Some of its most invigorating moments are when he lets himself revel in all that his good fortune has brought him. There’s the deliriously goofy “Cosigns,” which shouts out tourmates Phoebe Bridgers, Courtney Barnett, and Lucy Dacus and builds to the warbled refrain “I’m on FaceTime, I’m with Justin, we’re already friends,” a nod to the Bon Iver leader whose bleeding soundscapes feel like blueprints of Bartees Strange’s own. On the late-album standout “Escape The Circus,” Cox finds himself goaded by the music industry’s attempts at glitz and glam: “I’m in a fancy place, paid too much for the room/ The clerk, he says to buy some crypto, he had holes in his shoes.” But its chorus establishes Cox as an outsider to all this, with a warning to anyone who might be seduced by the trappings of fame: “Don’t do everything they say to/ We’re all part of the circus/ All on our own horses.” And then there’s “Wretched,” a meta-moment in which Cox lifts the hook from Live Forever’s dance highlight “Flagey God” and pushes it even further, as he reflects on a time when he leaned into his most negative aspects — “I was trying to be wretched/ Something I saw on TV” — but is held back from the edge by a meaningful personal relationship: “You were the only one who’d come calling/ You found ways to rescue me/ You rescued me.”
Farm To Table most often comes back to expressing appreciation for the people who lifted Bartees Strange up. Because success also comes with a cost — or it can, anyway, if you let it make you jaded and closed-off. But it can also serve as an opportunity to take stock and gain perspective, fuel you to be a better person to those that have stuck by you throughout the times when you struggled. Farm To Table is steeped in Cox’s history. On the wrenching and muted “Tours,” he sings about his father’s time away from home as an engineer for the army, and feeling abandoned when he was so young: “When I’d hide from thunder, scared that I’d wake my mother/ If I were my father, I’d wonder who’s checking for monsters.” But by the end of the song, he is proud of where he came from. “I’m your son, I’m your son,” he repeats. “And that’s all I want.” On “Heavy Heart,” he’s worried about watching himself become his father — always busy, never home. “Sometimes I feel just like my dad, rushing around/ I never saw the god in that/ Why work so hard if you can’t fall back?” On “Black Gold,” he intersperses snippets of conversations that were recorded (per the liner notes) during “dinners at my mother and father’s house throughout the pandemic.” It’s a song about our tendency to want to immediately escape what raised us. “I was way too rough with how I left my town,” he sings. “Now it’s big city lights for a country mouse.”
Those big lights have shined bright for Bartees Strange as he has finally gotten to take an album that was released during the pandemic on the road. I love that there’s a pixelated painting of Jesus Christ front-and-center on the cover of Farm To Table, surrounded by photos of Cox as he was growing up. It hints at the sort of heights that Bartees Strange wants to reach — those rock-god upper echelons that blaze through stadiums and headlining festival slots. I don’t know if that kind of transformation is even possible in today’s industry, but Cox is making the sort of music that could theoretically take him there. And Farm To Table is impressive in that it contains all of that ambition and also a gentler, more temperate version of Bartees Strange’s implacable musical vision: a snapshot of where he’s been and where he’s going.
Farm To Table is out digitally 6/17 via 4AD, with physical to follow on 10/7.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Perfume Genius’ Ugly Season
• Flasher’s Love Is Yours
• Hercules & Love Affair’s In Amber
• Sound Of Ceres’ Emerald Sea
• Joey Bada$$’s 2000
• Pet Fox’s A Face In Your Life
• Spencer Krug’s Twenty Twenty Twenty Twenty One
• Horse Jumper Of Love’s Natural Part
• ZORA’s Z1
• Jessie Buckley & Bernard Butler’s For All Our Days That Tear The Heart
• Anteloper’s Pink Dolphins
• Revelators Sound System’s Revelators
• Lit’s Tastes Like Gold
• Pete Yorn’s HAWAII
• Logic’s Vinyl Days
• Hank Williams Jr.’s Rich White Honky Blues
• Foals’ Life Is Yours
• ONI’s Loathing Light
• TV Priest’s My Other People
• Half-Handed Cloud’s Flutterama
• Ben Lee’s I’M FUN!
• Mt. Joy’s Orange Blood
• Yaya Bey’s Remember Your North Star
• Nova Twins’ Supernova
• Calum Scott’s Bridges
• Night Sins’ Violet Age
• Alice Merton’s S.I.D.E.S.
• Greg Puciato’s Mirrorcell
• EXECUTIONER’S MASK’s Winterlong
• Nick Cave’s spoken word Seven Psalms
• Alanis Morissette’s meditation album The Storm Before The Calm
• ME REX’s The Plesiosaur EP
• Hazel English’s Summer Nights EP
• Luis’ 057 (Schwyn) EP