Bartees Strange – Live Forever
Alternative | R&B | Indie Rock | Folk
Genre isn’t the dividing line that it used to be. Time was that you’d pledge your allegiance to your favourite style and it would become a key part of your identity. Sometimes it was quite literally ride or die, like with mods and rockers violently clashing in the street. These days people are a lot more eclectic and open minded when it comes to music. Those that put all their eggs in one basket are the outliers now. Most people now dabble in a little bit of everything, to the point where if you asked a stranger on the street what music they like, they wouldn’t know where to begin.
The same is of course true for artists too. Where before they were encouraged to pick their path and keep up the pedigree, now it’s a given that artists will draw inspiration from a wide and varied range of sources. Thing is, the difference is usually very subtle. Being inspired by a different style isn’t the same as being able to master it. People listen to a more diverse range of styles than ever before and yet it’s still rare to find an artist able to mirror that eclecticism in their own work. Able to turn their hands to sometimes contradictory compositions and weave polar opposites together in a way that somehow feels natural. It’s probably the hardest endeavour that an artist can undertake, and while he doesn’t quite nail it with his debut album, Bartees Strange does commit wholeheartedly to the cause and in doing so crafts one of the most intriguing records of the year.
Live Forever is an album of two revelations. The first is the broad range of what’s on offer. In a record barely longer than half an hour you have anthemic indie rockers, cathartic autumnal folk, contemporary R&B, hints of hip hop, and more, all on offer in a bountiful musical buffet. The second is that in spite of his commitment to being a jack of all trades, Bartees shows a remarkable level of mastery with most of the styles he turns his hands to. ‘Mustang’ and ‘Stone Meadows’ are two of the most electrifying rock tracks I’ve heard in 2020; the former living up to its namesake as it explodes out of the blocks, and the latter aglow with mesmeric synth soundscapes, combined with powerful impassioned vocals that truly make for a stunning listen. On ‘In A Cab’ the album dips its toes into the world of jazz with some impressively intricate percussion and some grandiose and engaging brass arrangements. The sparse echoing folk of ‘Fallen For You’ is immediately reminiscent of Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, and in stripping away all the left-field flourishes you get to hear Bartees’ soulful side and experience his vocals at their most earnest and moving.
Not every avenue the album takes ends up working for me though. The glitchy R&B of ‘Kelly Rowland’, the unnecessary vocal effects on the first half of ‘Ghostly’, and especially the incredibly abrasive industrial rap of ‘Mossblerd’, all feel like disappointing low points on an album with some otherwise dizzying highs. A lot of that comes down to my own preferences, I fully accept that – just because people are open to a lot of different styles these days doesn’t mean that everything is to everyone’s tastes. Some part of my disappointment with these tracks however comes from how abrupt and out of place they feel. They deliver sharp changes rather than being woven together with other elements as we see with other tracks. ‘Boomer’ for instance blends rap verses with an indie rock chorus in a way that (in spite of the questionable lyrics) opens me up to experiencing styles I would otherwise avoid. Lyrics overall are not this album’s strength sadly, and sometimes it either comes across as having nothing to say, or ends up saying it in a way that resolutely fails to connect.
In a way music taste can be symbolic of our personalities as a whole; so broad and varied that no part of it can truly be said to represent the whole. There are so many people who see just one or two facets of who you are – your friends, your family, your colleagues, your neighbours, strangers you pass on the street. Usually it’s only those closest to us who get to see the full picture. With Live Forever, Bartees Strange shares every facet of himself and his work with the world, for better or worse. If you will, take a moment to think about the people you know best. You see them at their worst, the sides they don’t share with most others. You might hate what team they support, or the way they snore, or how stubborn or forgetful they are, but none of these things are deal-breakers as you’re also in the privileged position to see them at their very best. There are certainly some moments on this record that rub me up the wrong way, but next to its highlights they are not enough to erode away my admiration for the conviction and ambition Bartees displays here on his debut.