Bartees Strange Breaks Down His EP of The National Covers Track by Track

“Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy” drops this Friday—here’s what he has to say about the songs he chose to cover.
Track by Track
Bartees Strange Breaks Down His EP of The National Covers Track by Track

“Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy” drops this Friday—here’s what he has to say about the songs he chose to cover.

Words: Mike LeSuer

photo by Bao Ngo

March 09, 2020

There’s something particularly daunting about releasing an EP’s worth of covers by a band that’s still active and likely to hear your take on their songs, inspiring the cover artist to put their own creativity and reverence on full display without completely commandeering the tracks or potentially committing any injustices to them. It can be hard to express that you fully appreciate an artist’s music without erring too much on the side of homage.

Fortunately for Bartees Strange, the UK-born and Oklahoma-raised songwriter went into his new EP Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy—a collection of covers of The National songs, as well as a few Bartees originals—with the blessing of two-fifths of the band he’s covering. Set to be released this Friday via the Dessner twins’ label Brassland, Pretty Boy is a meticulously constructed collection of songs transparently inspired by the work of The National rather than simply appreciative of it. Each of the record’s five covers sound like an alternate take of the original rather than an independent cover, swelling to ferocious climax on the originally tame “Lemonworld” while the raging Obama anthem “Mr. November” is interpreted as a soft—though equally engaging—ballad.

To hear Bartees discuss each track on the EP further proves his thoughtful approach to the project. Before the full record drops at the end of the week, take a moment to read through his thoughts on the full tracklist below, providing insight on his takes on The National and background on his own original songs. 

Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy is out this Friday, March 13, via Brassland. Pre-order it here.

1. “About Today”

The big challenge with this record was that all of the songs are so good already, so I didn't want to try to duplicate what they have already gracefully landed. I think “About Today” is their highest streaming song, so I didn't want to try to touch that sonically. I wanted to show a different interpretation of elements within it that touched me. For this song, it was the kick that sold me. There's something about the way Bryan Devendorf plays drums. I think Modern Drummer calls him “deceptively simple,” and I think that's accurate. He's a machine—he writes tight, punchy rhythms that are immovably lean, no fat. I wanted to sort of take that idea, his mechanics, and program that vibe with electronic drums. 

Beyond that I wanted the atmosphere to mimic the words more. I feel like the original version seems kind of hopeful, I wanted to make it less so. I wanted to express the slow growing pain of losing someone close—that's why the song moves the way it does. Gradually growing louder, weirder, and lonelier until the end the song just breaks off. 

2. “Lemonworld” 

This is a song that my band loves, and it was honestly not on the top of my list to track, but it started to just hit me different once I started singing it. During the chorus, Matt Berninger sings "You and your sister live in a Lemonworld / And I want to stay in and die." I think he's commenting on being broke in Brooklyn while everyone around him was doing well. That resonated with me.  My friends are buying houses, having kids, investing, traveling, and I don't feel like I'm a part of their world. It's made me feel like, “Well damn, if i'm this far behind I'd rather just stay in and die…” In making that connection with the song we had some ideas. 

On the arrangement, Bryce and Aaron Dessner play with weird time signatures in their structures. Like a guitar part in six, and a drum part in four, and making it all link up at the end. So, in our version one synth is in fifteen, the other is in sixteen. They meet at the chorus which is a fairly straightforward rock section, but truly, it's kind of complicated with everything going on. Which sorta captures, in my opinion, something The National do really well. Complex, delicate, simple, emotional stuff. 

3. “Mr. November”

This is an all-time fave of mine. And it's a perfect example of a song that changed in meaning to me after I sang it. To sing, "I'm the new blue blood, I'm the great white hope," followed by, "I won't fuck us over, I'm Mr. November," feels so representative of the times we're in politically and socially. Because yes, in many ways people like me are more visible than we've been in the past. So I wanted to make the song feel more like an anthem. It's probably the most straightforward song on the record, and the song that sounds closest to something The National might even do.

4. “All the Wine”  

This is what happens when a deep cut fan of The National is stranded on an island of jazz players. We went all the way left with this song. No cap, the original version is such a right-down-the-middle indie rock song in the best way. So in reinterpreting it I just wanted to take it somewhere else. We referenced the original structure of the tune, sure, but we really wanted to have a moment when you just get transported. I think that happens during the bridge—we go Kamasi Washington with it with the chord voicing and the progression. This song is sort of representative of the bridge between one side of the music I like in being The National, and some more of the progressive and weird jazz stuff me and my band are into. A happy marriage. 

5. “Reasonable Man” 

This is not the biggest or most recognizable song in the catalog, but it's one that I come back to time and time again. It reminds me that most great songs are great before they're produced and all cleaned up sometimes. The original version is super rough-sounding, and I like that they left it that way. I tried to keep it pretty bare-bones and really lean on the lyrics. They're the most powerful part of the tune. We made space for one sort of weird thing there in the middle with that detuned, multilayered horn. My buddy Brian Turnmire is a horn player in the Marines, like at the White House and stuff. He brought a flugelhorn over and tracked it. 

6. “Going Going” 

This is a song I’ve performed a lot over the last few years. I’ve never been able to execute it the way I want, but I feel like that is sort of what makes this song special to me. I’ve also not figured out all the way to be many of the things I want. 

Anywho, this track is my most “this is who I am” tune. It’s very much about my upbringing and the fear associated with where I grew up. I think most people would say I grew up in a quiet and safe small town, but I think most of the black and brown people there would say very different things. That fear is eventually what pushed me out of that town, and that’s what this song is sort of picking at: how hard it was to leave home, how deeply connected I still am to that place, and how I still carry it with me everywhere I go. 

7. “Far” [Bandcamp exclusive]

This is another song I’ve been picking at for years. I’ll probably record it again one day. This is a song about wanting my own little house on my own little hill—away from everyone, so I can feel safe. I think a lot about how in this world there are so few places for black folks to just be themselves. Oklahoma was crazy, but America is also crazy. And in days like these, it looks like “crazy” is becoming more and more mainstream. Sometimes I think, “Damn, I gotta leave earth just to find a place I can be myself, because there’s nowhere here I can go.” “Far” also touches on how far I’m willing to go to feel like I have friends, family, and good relationships. Those aspects of my life  have become my “safer” places. 

8. “Hags” 

I wanted to put this song on the EP because it is such a departure from anything I’ve ever written. We tracked it in Wassaic, NY—the opposite of a beach town. I worked for a semester at Disney World, and Brian, our bassist, went to college in Florida. We got off on a tangent about living in Florida and visiting the beaches and how absolutely haggard some of them are versus others. Then I came up with the riff as a joke and asked Brian to track the idea. I recorded a couple versions pretty quickly, and then we tracked the song live and we all really liked it. It didn’t fit much on the LP we wanted to make, but we did like the story. So we decided to keep it, and pairing it with these songs felt right because it adds some levity and hopefully shows people we don’t take ourselves too seriously.