Bartees Strange has introduced himself as a solo artist three times in the past two years, depending on how you look at it. Previously having played in a number of different punk and indie bands throughout his twenties, Bartees Cox Jr. released “In a Cab,” his first single as Bartees Strange, in spring of 2019, capturing in just over two minutes a richly arranged dream-pop sound with an undercurrent of melancholy. A sign of unexpected things to come, “In a Cab” was followed just under a year later with the release of Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy, Bartees Strange’s first proper collection of songs—only they were all radically reworked covers of songs by The National, both a tribute to a band he admires and a commentary on being a Black musician in a predominantly white realm in music.
With Live Forever, Bartees Strange’s full-length debut, he formally completes this long period of introduction with his first complete statement as a songwriter, one that reflects both his eclectic approach and a more deeply personal set of narratives. “In a Cab” remains one of its immediate standouts, and it remains as gorgeously intoxicating as it was over a year ago, awash in lush jangle and bright bursts of trumpet. But as Cox spirals out from there, his approach allows plenty of room for curious surprises that reveal the breadth of his songwriting, from the glitchy lo-fi loops of “Kelly Rowland” to the spacious folk strums of “Fallen for You” or the cross-pollination of hip-hop and rock on “Boomer.” Live Forever isn’t an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink album necessarily—there’s an aesthetic thread of dreamily romantic melody that holds everything together—but part of the fun is just following where Bartees’ creative muse feels like taking him.
The images that Bartees Strange pieces together on Live Forever aren’t always straightforward in narrative, sometimes pieced together like clippings in a scrapbook. But the common thread is that these stories are all his, some of them delivered stream of consciousness, some of them depicted with aching detail. “Mustang” is named for a city in Oklahoma where he once lived, formerly an all-white sundown town, and through its anthemic sound and with occasional reference to The Antlers, Bartees meditates on the idea of being his genuine self: “Is anybody really up for this one, if I don’t hold nothing back?” On the brief “Mossblerd,” he takes on the idea of genre as a form of music industry segregation: “Genres keep us in our boxes…keep us from our options.” There are just as many moments of warmth and positivity as anxiety and frustration, one of the most touching being a bonding experience where he “smoked that shit with my old man” in “Boomer,” two generations loosening up a bit and finding common ground.
Every time Bartees Strange shares new music, he reveals something new, too clever or savvy to ever show the whole picture at once. But with Live Forever, it feels like he’s finally offering up the full spectrum. It feels like a project that’s been a long time in the making, the sum of a talented singer/songwriter’s strengths captured in just a little over a half hour. It’s a remarkably strong debut, and it’s just the beginning.
Label: Memory Music
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.