We live in an era when intersectionality is either fiercely celebrated or rejected, and Spotify playlists are the norm—especially for young music listeners. These conditions are perfect for an album like Live Forever by Bartees Strange, a Brooklyn musician whose work is a tapestry of traditions, ideas and sounds.
Back in 2017, he released an album called Magic Boy under the name Bartees & The Strange Fruit. While most of the songs could be characterized as acoustic folk, there were several hints—some subtle and others blatant—that Strange was only showing us the tip of the iceberg. Aggressive vocals and waves of experimental distortion rang out on “Eat Your Heart,” and “Best of You” mixed emo vocals, horns and an odd, pitch-shifted outro. You could already hear Strange’s shell beginning to crack.
After rebranding as Bartees Strange, he released an EP titled Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy, which reimagined songs by The National from the perspective of a Black musician in an overwhelmingly white indie rock space. As fans and writers like Paste contributor Erica Campbell have explained, Black people have a unique, but no less meaningful, connection to music made by white rock musicians. It’s a complicated relationship as rock ‘n’ roll owes everything to Black rhythm and blues artists—many of whom never received their due praise, fame or money—and it’s one that should be constantly acknowledged and celebrated.
Strange’s versions of songs like “Lemonworld” and “Mr. November” bring a totally different imagination and presence compared to the originals, utilizing warmer vocal tones and emphasizing lyrics that weren’t before. Both his passion and vocal talent were evident. On his debut album Live Forever, Strange climbs even higher mountains, questioning conventions, styles and personal politics. But for someone who emerged from Washington D.C.’s rich, often subversive music scene, this is no surprise.
Strange throws curveballs throughout Live Forever’s 11 tracks, but they never seem out of place. Atmospheric soul bookends the album, a style where Strange excels, but there’s plenty to be surprised and delighted by in between. Promo singles “Mustang” and “Boomer” harness a visceral power with the former diving into hooky synth-rock and sweltering punk and the latter dishing out hip-hop verses and giddy blues rock. Only three tracks in, it’s obvious that Strange’s good-natured charisma and vocal warmth are something special. You can hear the rootsy blues of Black Pumas, the genre-hopping grandeur and vocal dynamism of Moses Sumney, the southern rock cadence of Kings of Leon and the punky explosiveness of At The Drive In—and that’s only the beginning of Strange’s reference points.
“Kelly Rowland” touts the painful grind and lofty ambitions of hip-hop (“Broke ass n***a but I got Versace dreams”), but you might not be used to hearing these sentiments over minimalist guitar loops. There’s also the grim spoken-word rap of “Mossblerd,” an offbeat track with background gunshots and a well-informed distillation of the obstacles ahead of him (“Genres keep us in our boxes”). “Flagey God” is the darkest of the bunch, channeling the experimental rock of Yves Tumor and the creepy echoes of witch house, and its R&B chorus is one of Strange’s best. The sequence where he wrings out the most fiery passion is “Stone Meadows,” as his full-bodied, smoky vocals communicate a deep anguish in its climax. The track’s misty synths and balmy spirit recall The War on Drugs, and it’s easy to get lost in it. Strange lays down a lot of potential sonic paths on Live Forever, but there are still hints of his previous material with the folky tenderness of “Far” and “Fallen For You.”
When Strange sings, “Come to a place where everything’s everything” on opening track “Jealousy,” he’s not just talking about sounds, he’s talking about emotions, too. Live Forever finds Strange on a complex journey. He tries to “cut out [his] anger,” while simultaneously acknowledging he has a right to resentment in other respects (“Mossblerd”). He wonders if vulnerability will come back to bite him (“Is anybody really up for this one / If I don’t hold nothing back”), and feels defeated by his own expectations and negative outcomes that were out of his control (“Boomer”). Strange has demons, stress and ambitions, and sometimes, these build up to the point where he delights at the idea of just drifting through the air like a spirit (“Far,” “Flagey God”). “Far,” in particular, sounds like Strange is overlooking a cliff, looking at his past as if it’s built up like layers of sediment, still unsure of his own impact or inherent meaning (“Oh boy I seen, Everything I love pass…Don’t no one know what’s good or what’s bad, or whatev”). But perhaps “Fallen for You” is meant to quell his and our own existential fears with its reassurance that genuine connections are cherished more than personal failings or achievements.
On Live Forever, Strange expels feelings of uncertainty with a particular ballsiness. He may be his own worst enemy in regards to day-to-day emotions, but his songwriting chops and intriguing stylistic choices give him musical superpowers. Occasional lulls are superseded by his dense vision and quicksilver genre flashes. Hearing Strange come into his own is not only essential listening in 2020, but it’s also reflective of the current complexities of American culture, demographics and socio-economics.
Lizzie Manno is an associate music editor, Coldplay apologist, bread obsessive and lover of all things indie, punk and shoegaze at Paste. Follow her on Twitter @LizzieManno