Bartees Strange’s 2020 album Live Forever was an exuberant declaration of freedom, and few rock debuts of recent years have filled me with such a desire to stand up and cheer. Strange spat rap verses, belted emo choruses, and stomped his distortion box with a conviction bordering on frenzy: Look at everything I can do, the album nearly screamed. Wading into the border separating rock and rap has long been a quick way to get tangled in barbed wire, but Strange leaped effortlessly over policed barriers that ensnared countless artists before him. “Genres/Keep us in our boxes/Keep us from our commas,” he rapped on “Mossblerd,” probably the clearest manifesto on an album full of them.
Live Forever jump-started his career, landed him on year-end lists, and got him signed to 4AD. At the root of any kind of sudden stardom lies a question: How well do you handle getting noticed? Based on his second album, Farm to Table, his first for 4AD, Strange gets noticed well. On Farm to Table, he’s saying many of the same things he said on Live Forever, but more with his chest, with his feet planted even further apart, his gaze more level with ours. The genre leaps in his songwriting have grown more sure-footed and, if anything, even wider—“Mulholland Dr.” opens with a clean tangle of emo guitars, then ascends into a chorus massive enough that you could uproot it from its home terroir, switch the arrangements, and sell it to Adam Levine. The chorus on “Wretched,” meanwhile, sounds like an actual Maroon 5 hit, its synths and side-chained beat exploding overhead like fireworks over a stadium.
Strange only works in big swings, and the contact high of his music is partly from his own audible elation when he connects. He likes sweeping gestures and reliable pleasures, which he deploys with force and conviction. Check the big horns on “Heavy Heart”; you can practically see him jubilantly cueing them with his arms over his head. On “Black Gold,” he retells his journey from Oklahoma to the D.C. in strokes broad enough for an MGM musical: “Now it’s big city lights for a country mouse.” His writing jumbles emotional extremes until they start to blur into one another: His lyrics are full of pained apologies that sound like bravado, chest-banging declarations that sound like cries of despair.
Strange’s genre leaps land so clean because of his remarkable voice. As a kid, he sang opera, and he can do pretty much anything: twirl into a falsetto, scale up an octave to punch a Broadway-sized high note, unleash soul shouts. On “Hennessy,” he flexes melismatic lines over a lo-fi acoustic guitar set up, and it sounds like someone caught D’Angelo on an iPhone. Recalling the loneliness of his itinerant upbringing as the child of an Air Force engineer on “Tours,” he rasps “I’m your son” with a venom that is surprising, nearly vengeful, shading a tender ballad with abject and primal undertones.