It’s abundantly clear that Bartees Strange has a total disregard for genre and that’s what makes his debut LP ‘Live Forever’ such a superb record. Don’t let the title throw you off the scent, this isn’t some kind of Oasis covers album, more of a collection of tracks that traverse a vast sonic terrain, taking in minimalist R ‘n’ B, Killers-esque synth-driven indie rock, throbbing industrial soul, acoustic nothingness al a Bon Iver and the uncompromising audio assault of Death Grips. The soundscapes might be in a perpetual flux but Strange’s soulful vocal is the main constant; ranging from bruised and tender to full throated and passionate.
There’s a feeling of struggle and frustration that bleeds throughout ‘Live Forever’; and it’s these emotions that splinter off and manifest themselves further via vulnerability and a subsequent anger. This notion of helplessness and rage can be charted back to Mustang, Oklahoma, where Strange grew up. A notoriously racist town on the outskirts of Oklahoma City, with a largely white population, the artist has been quoted “I didn’t let myself be seen. I held myself down so I could make people feel more comfortable around me”. As typified by the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd by US law enforcement, 2020 has brought the systemic issue of institutionalised and societal racism to the fore and further exposed centuries of racial injustice, not just in the US but globally. Although not written as a response to the events of this year, pockets of ‘Live Forever’ act as a stark reminder of something that’s fundamentally wrong with humankind. Ushering in the album via a calming swarm of quivering synth and Strange’s exquisitely soulful delivery, you can hear our charge stating “cut out my anger/cut out all I believe” in what appears to be a reaction towards being discriminated against, as if to silence the oppressed. Follow on track ‘Mustang’ switches the dial towards purposeful indie-synth rock, that drives forward with a restless energy. As a nod back to the town of his youth, the singer recounts a confrontation that’s both upsetting and shocking “my crooked bones/you’re screaming and cursing/I’m smiling/you’re killing me”. The direct gut punch of “I know how this is gonna end/I hate America” says it all. Later into the record ‘Mossblerd’ tells a further story of racial oppression; over broken, jittering electronics and oscillating noises, Strange cuts the figure of someone beyond anger, as he recounts too many instances of discrimination, “keep us in our boxes/keep us from our options” paint a stark picture for the fate of anyone that isn’t white in America.
‘Live Forever’ is an album that thrives in the sonic freedom it’s been given by Strange; it’s a record that houses the weird cut ‘n’ paste electronica-R’n’B of ‘Kelly Rowland’ and the brass-laden, smoky jazz trill of ‘In A Cab’. Murky Burial-esque beats and a monochrome atmosphere frame the quirky bop of ‘Flagey God’, which acts as the perfect vehicle for Strange’s lust for the peculiar but his penchant for an irresistible hook. ‘Fallen for You’ is where Strange channels his inner Bon Iver from ‘Emma Forever, Ago’, as the coalition of brittle acoustic guitar and his tender voice convey an exposed vulnerability “I bet you know that sometimes I get scared?”. If ‘Fallen for You’ provokes folk-era Bon Iver, ‘Ghostly’ brings us up to speed with more recent times Justin Vernon, via the sparse, bubbling techno of ‘Ghostly’. Bringing the album to a close, this is where alien voices and noises coalesce via the theme of someone looking to cut themselves off from the world “wish I could disappear more often/just run home and hide”.
Evidently, Bartees Strange has a broad musical influence and something incredibly important to say, and it’s taken his mercurial talent to bind these disparate outposts together into one cohesive body of work. Where others might have made a big ol’ mess of his ever-evolving inspiration, this visionary has crafted something simply wonderful.
Order Live Forever by Bartees Strange here