When Bartees Strange attended a concert by The National in Washington, DC in 2019, he was struck by the fact that there were so few black people in the audience. A long-time fan of the band, the singer-songwriter and producer decided to take five of The National’s songs and re-imagine them in an EP titled Say Goodbye To Pretty Boy, released earlier this year.
Some of those songs are quite unrecognizable—the irony and hint of biting sarcasm, a hallmark of The National’s frontman Matt Berninger’s lyrics and vocal style, is missing—and Strange’s take on the lyrics can seem a tad too literal. Yet his versions of five songs by the famous band provide a pleasurably warm feel while not compromising the power that The National’s original compositions teemed with.
Strange reinterprets the songs from his own point of view, and although it may not have the effect The National intended to create, the outcome is an honest homage to a band he genuinely loves. The title of his EP, Say Goodbye To Pretty Boy, is from the lyrics of The National’s Murder Me Rachael, from their 2003 album Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers. And for his EP, he picked popular tunes by the band such as Mr November from Alligator; Lemonworld from High Violet; and A Reasonable Man (I Don’t Mind) from their EP Cherry Tree.
Say Goodbye To Pretty Boy quickly caught the attention of critics and other musicians, including Berninger, but it was not until early this month that Strange released his first full-length album, Live Forever. If the EP of The National covers was your reference point for Strange’s brand of music, the new album shatters that perception. It’s an album of 11 short songs that defy generic classification. And therein lies the rub. Strange is a musician and producer like few others. His ability to blur genres and playfully tease the listener is rather unique. He hops from hip hop to R&B to pop, and to rock ‘n’ roll—and here’s the thing, those jumps can happen (and, more often than not, do happen) within the span of a song that is, say, just a shade over 3 minutes long.
In Boomer, one of the tracks on Live Forever, Strange begins the first verse as a dyed-in-the-wool rapper but by the time he has moved on to the chorus, it is a rock song, with Strange’s vocals sounding more like a rock ’n’ roll singer and leaving the listener perplexed yet pleasantly surprised. On other tracks, including Flagey God and Kelly Rowland, Strange experiments with detours from trap-style hip hop to techno trance, hopping from one style to another and back again. That ease of segueing from one genre to another seamlessly is what demonstrates Strange’s special talent as a musician.
Strange is an alias. He was born Bartees Cox Jr in England; his father was in the military, and his mother an opera singer. After many moves around Europe, the family settled in Oklahoma, in what was a white-dominated neighbourhood. Although he eventually settled in Washington, DC, some of the travails he faced as a young boy in Oklahoma inflect his music.
Forever Live, for instance, has a song titled Mossblerd—a made-up word that references Mossberg, the firearm maker, and “blerd”, a colloquial term for a black nerd. It’s about breaking the stereotypical tendency to box black people as, for example, rappers or criminals. In an interview with Uproxx, the online culture magazine, he said: “I feel like narrow definitions translate into actually painful realities. For example, growing up, the only black people I saw on TV were rappers. It was a crime, it was some horrible news story. It wasn’t always a super positive connotation, as much as I love hip hop and everything around it. I think it’s powerful and super empowering, but it limits your world view of what you think you can do with your life.”
An interesting fact about Strange is that he has a day job that is quite different from his work as a musician. In his early 30s, Strange (as Cox) is a director of marketing and communications at a non-profit in Washington that develops community solar projects and subscriber management programmes that distribute solar power to marginalized communities. A seasoned communicator who has worked for other non-profits focused on saving the environment, he nevertheless manages to find time for his music as well as his role as a producer for other artists.
His career as a musician holds much promise. His first album has been received with accolades all around. In early October, when Live Forever came out, Pitchfork magazine gave it the tag of Best New Music, a coveted title. But it didn’t come as a surprise. The album showcases a rare talent—that of a musician who can traverse different styles with ease, one for whom genre-related boundaries are meaningless. That’s true artistic freedom.
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.