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Strange Against The Machine

CREEM reviews Bartees Strange’s 'Farm to Table.'

by: Sasha Geffen

June 9, 2022

What can we be if not what we are to each other? That's the question that hangs heavy and bright, like a full moon, over Bartees Strange's second album, Farm to Table. Since the release of his debut LP Live Forever in late 2020, the D.C.-area artist has made a name for himself as one of the most bombastic and relentlessly inventive performers working within the shifting nebula of "indie rock." Years in different cities playing among different genres, from hardcore and emo to house and hip-hop, all bear through in his restless, riveting sound. The dynamic, quiet/loud jolts and captivating melodicism that characterized his first album continue through Farm to Table, where Strange takes the chance to reflect on both his recent rise in the music industry and his ever-evolving role among the people he loves.

As Strange put forth on Live Forever's "Mossblerd," genre is not a harmless organizational tool; it's a substructure that bolsters the superstructure of racial capitalism, sealing certain artists out of certain scenes, reifying whiteness as the untroubled norm. Genre concerns who has access to which resources as much as it describes who sounds like what. Indie rock, a genre supposedly in opposition to consumerism, is often one of the worst offenders when it comes to camouflaging that same machinery. Indie gets treated as a channel for conveying pure feeling, unbeholden to popular whim. The indie artist digs up deep, personal emotion, spins it over a handful of guitar chords, and draws listeners in to raw experience. In this narrative, the mechanics of label distribution, fanbase-building, and self-promotion fall to the wayside, incidentally: Indie artists are supposed to get big because they have the biggest feelings and the least compunction about sharing them.

Strange sources the sounds of this world—Live Forever interpolated songs by indie catalysts Bon Iver and The Antlers—while also illuminating its rules. On Farm to Table's "Cosigns," he celebrates the time he's been spending Facetiming with Bon Iver's Justin Vernon. He calls out the marquee artists who've invited him on tour, like Phoebe Bridgers and Courtney Barnett. He drops a nod to Martin Mills, founder of Beggars Group, the company that owns his label 4AD. Strange's rise over the past two years has been fueled both by his own brilliant songs and by the network of fellow artists and industry stalwarts who have recognized their brilliance. No one skyrockets on their own. Everyone has connections. Indie rock, under its usual cloak of whiteness, tends to feed the myth of individual genius. Strange upends that demurral. People move by network, and all art is network, even if it labels itself rogue.

Alongside celebrating his friends and champions, Strange works through the long tail of his family roots on Farm to Table. His father was a military engineer who frequently traveled on duty when Strange was a child. On the gentle acoustic "Tours," he sifts through memories of speaking to his dad on the phone while he was away: "You’d talk about times where we were young and I remember nothing," he sings, his voice stretching out that last word. His dad holds a version of Strange that's gone to him; there's a rift between his own sense of self and the ways that others hold him in their minds. "I’m your son/And that’s all I want," he concludes at the finish, his voice coarsening at first and then careening up into his falsetto. There are the stable, well-defined roles both men play for each other, and then there's also the desire that animates them. There's love's container and then the love itself that floods it.

Indie rock, under its usual cloak of whiteness, tends to feed the myth of individual genius

The voices of Strange's family appear directly toward the end "Black Gold," a gentle but static-streaked rumination on leaving his childhood home in Mustang, Oklahoma. There's still distance between himself and his origins here, but an electric current spans it. He finds a way to hold the people he's been and the people who've been there for him within the person he is. "When I miss your call, it reopens wounds," he sings in falsetto. "Build me back up, like you would do." Sometimes the people who've hurt us can also be the people who help us through our healing. Strange's songwriting thrives on tension, and that's one of many thematic tensions animating Farm to Table. He weighs his powerful drive to succeed at what he does with skeptical glances at capitalism's scam on "Escape the Circus." On "Heavy Heart," he tempers wounded trepidation and a predisposition for melancholy with fierce, abundant love. By holding these poles beside each other, wondering at the charge of their paradox, he skips out of the narratives that would flatten them. He lets their fullness flicker. He surfaces his own story where nothing gets crossed out.

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