Bartees Cox Jr., a Washington D.C.-based artist and the mastermind behind Bartees Strange, is not a household name — yet.
His debut album, “Live Forever,” released Oct. 2 in the wake of his debut extended play (EP) of The National covers titled “Say Goodbye To Pretty Boy.”
However, calling the five tracks “covers” feels wrong, as Strange masterfully reinterpreted each of the songs, previewing only some of what he had in store for his full-length debut.
“Live Forever” starts with “Jealousy,” a dreamy soundscape that fades into the sound of wind howling before jumping into “Mustang,” a hearken back to the alternative rock of the early 2000s. Shouty, layered vocals in the chorus are accompanied by drums that make it impossible not to move, if not break out into a fit of full-on air drumming.
The inspirations of alternative music slowly melt into a jazz-influenced rock on “In A Cab,” an outlier on the album with a swinging beat and a horn section to accompany the song’s crescendos.
The turbulent style changes continue with “Mossblerd” — a combination of “mossberg” and “black nerd,” according to album notes sent to The Phoenix. The song is a short, grungy rap full of anger for the boxes and genres that Cox says Black artists are forced into.
On the track Cox displays his disdain for labels by rapping, “Genres keep us in our boxes / Keep us from our commas / Keep us niggas hopeless / Keep us from our options.”
One of the most stunning aspects of the record is Cox’s range to explore aspects of different types of music, even pivoting multiple times within individual songs. “Boomer” starts with a rap verse before going into a calmer pre-chorus and eventually an explosive post-punk chorus, and it most definitely is not the only track on the record to change things up mid-song.
The last third of the album slows down from the punk and rap tinges of the earlier songs, instead opting for acoustic guitars on “Far” and “Fallen For You” before directions are changed yet again, though this time ever so slightly. Keeping with the theme of softer songs, Cox utilizes soothing synths and layered vocals to close out the record with “Ghostly.”
Long before the last strum of the acoustic guitar “Ghostly” fades out, it’s apparent that Cox’s range isn’t limited to just his instrumentations — his vocals throughout the album shift back and forth from pop-punk shouts to the melodic, soothing singing utilized on the last few tracks.
Despite visiting many of the same genres more than once, “Live Forever” manages to avoid any sort of repeats in its 11-track run. The constant change may come off as jarring to some, but Cox pulls it off with sonic and thematic cohesion — an ambitious job-well-done from a debut record.
“Live Forever” is available on Spotify and other streaming services.