Bartees Strange, “Live Forever”
My Big Fat Greek Wedding hit theaters seven months after 9/11, and though we may not have realized it at the time, it really stood out among the morally absolute epics like Lord of the Rings—not to mention the weirdly nationalistic sagas like Spider-Man—that everyone went to see in theaters. Even years later when I was shadowing at a high school I remember a Spanish teacher cutting the lesson short to put that movie (about Greek people?) on—the class lost their shit. I still have no idea what the deal with this movie is, where it came from, or why white people in particular loved it so goddamn much, but for that summer it felt like the one cultural event that took our minds off the quickly escalating quote-unquote War on Terror.
Fast-forward to this stupid global pandemic, a near-ubiquitous internet connection, and a post-Yanny/Laurel moment in culture which has revealed something called 100 gecs to either your utter delight or your absolute chagrin (there’s no in-between anymore), and the steady traction of Bartees Strange feels like a similar, much-needed glue to mend our culture. After releasing an EP of interesting takes on his favorite tracks by The National via the Dessners’ own Brassland Records, the songwriter began attracting attention from just about every blue-checkmark culture publication one-by-one, not to mention other prominent blue-checked accounts, like @VancityReynods. So why are we all clinging to Bartees?
His debut LP Live Forever spells the answer out pretty explicitly, if not immediately. There’s a lot going on here, and it’s not the polarizing lot-going-on we hear in projects like gecs, where all the goings-on occur simultaneously. Instead, the opening “Jealousy” introduces the record as being linked to the gossamer cloud rap of Kweku Collins before “Mustang” adds a driving National-like guitar line to the mix, even dipping into a refrain ripped from The Antlers’ emotionally draining “Epilogue” to reinforce that ’00s-indie association. Without slowing down, “Boomer” further convolutes rap and rock before a nearly breakneck shift to blues—just three tracks in, Live Forever feels more like a perfectly curated DJ set than a cohesive album. And man do we miss DJ sets.
But not even lines like “I’ve been up for forty weeks” on “In a Cab” (the most National-sounding song title of the lot), which speak directly to our quarantine-addled brains, reduce Live Forever to an of-the-moment COVID record. Though the clear influence of For Emma, Forever Ago surfaces on the ragged, skinny-love folk of “Fair” and “Fallen for You” (which immediately follow the industrial hip-hop of “Mossblerd”), rather than making us feel like we’ve been cooped up far too long it conversely stretches the wings of rock music—the record sounds more influenced by all those unsubstantiated “Is Rock Dead?” think pieces than it does any of the previously mentioned subgenres. And very much unlike For Emma, we’ve all fallen in love with Live Forever before the record has even dropped, rather than first hearing its hit single played at the high school talent show by the first kid in your class to get a saddle bag.