When I write about music, I rely on comparisons. After learning the mnemonic device that asserted that all well-behaved youths of the male persuasion merited a reward of a chocolatey dessert, every other bit of musical instruction that brave souls tried to impart upon me might as well have been delivered in a Venusian language further warped by Plutonian dialects. Others can hear and describe intricate chord changes, quirky time signatures, and other marvelous reinventions on the grammar of pop. I think I can sometimes feel those things, but I can’t understand them with enough certainty to put anything into words. In my struggle to convey what I’m hearing, I often resort to vague resemblances to the creations of others artists I know.
I could use my typical approach in reviewing Live Forever, the debut album from Bartees Strange. From my various listens, I already have a few vague, uncertain corollaries jotted down. But relating to material on Live Forever to anything else strikes me as foolhardy. It’s not that Strange’s music is unique, though it is, fiercely, dazzlingly so. It’s that Strange puts so much into every song, swirling through genres effortlessly, that the resemblances are fleeting, almost immediately replaced by another divergent evocation. It’s as if Strange took every song he ever heard, assimilated the lot of them, and decided that the rules governing their separation from one another are entirely unnecessary. The emerge from him in a new form, Cronenberged together into awesome, barely identifiable creatures.
“Boomer” is the mind-spinning standard bearer of the album, unleashing a torrent of interlaced styles in service of a song largely about Strange getting stoned with his father (“Walked across the street the other day to get a gram/ Came back to the trap and smoked that shit with my old man”). It’s a standout, but hardly atypical. “Mustang” strengthens its careening, preening dance music with an underlying earthiness, like gravel tossed into the synths. “In a Cab” includes a spectacular messy jazz background, and “Mossblerd” is a suggests the result of hip hop and industrial evolving together, hand in tightly clasped hand, and “Ghostly” has an appropriately ethereal tingle. Even when a song is easier to pin down, as with the spare, beautiful “Fallen for You,” Strange is unearthing gems of previously unseen purity.
Representing the abundance of ideas, the tracks on Live Forever seem closer together than the norm. It gives the impression of Strange in a headlong rush to get to his next sonic adventure, eager to share. I might be lacking in the vernacular to describe the album, but that doesn’t lessen the thrill when I experience it, every spin of the record like a spiritual renewal.