Bartees Strange has been everywhere. Since his debut album, 2020’s Live Forever, he’s produced records for Harmony Woods and Oceanator, released a deluxe version of his debut with bonus tracks and reworked renditions of old songs, covered past tourmate Phoebe Bridgers’ “Kyoto” for a remix EP, worked with the legendary producer Will Yip, Kississippi, Armand Hammer, and Dr. Dog’s Eric Slick, and toured with a bevy of indie darlings. After such a deluge of creative output, you’d assume that Bartees would inevitably lose steam. Farm to Table, his second album and first for the legacy indie label 4AD, goes to show that assumptions aren’t shortcuts worth taking.
As his sundry collaborations show, Bartees doesn’t like to stay in any one place for too long. This attitude manifests in his music, too. Live Forever encompasses arty hip-hop (“Kelly Rowland”), For Emma Forever Ago-inflected folk (“Fallen for You”) and a dance track originally intended for house producer Yaeji (“Flagey God”). “I don’t give a fuck, I’ll rap the first verse and sing the next one like Kings of Leon,” he recently told Pitchfork. Farm to Table continues this trend, displaying genre’s intrinsic, conceptual malleability and how artists can bend it to their liking. Rather than contorting himself to fit into genre-conventional boxes, Bartees molds a style to match his vision; it’s merely a tool for his idiosyncratic expression, not an end product in and of itself.
It’s this musical elasticity that has earned Bartees universal praise and a devoted fanbase. Although he released a covers EP of The National songs months before his debut, it was Live Forever that ultimately launched him into a different league. He understood that the record was going to change his life for better or worse, and he used this uncertainty as fuel for his next project. “I wanted to preserve the brain I had in that moment,” he said in the aforementioned interview. “If everyone hated Live Forever, I was going to be fucked up. If everyone loved it, I was going to be fucked up.” To preserve his artistic spirit, he began tracking the new record just a day shy of Live Forever’s release. Initially an EP, Farm to Table quickly metamorphosed into a full-blown LP. Similar to the way in which the Super Mario Galaxy team kept churning out brilliant level ideas and used them for a sequel, Farm to Table is yet another showcase for Bartees’ versatile excellence.
The second track, “Mulholland Dr,” is an immediate highlight. It summons Gorilla Manor-era Local Natives with its swift rim clicks and limber, melodic guitar lines. Eventually, it shifts into a verse comprising Prismizer-esque vocals reminiscent of a more grounded 22, A Million. If there’s a thesis statement for Farm to Table, the quicksilver nature of “Mulholland Dr” makes it a worthy candidate. “Wretched,” a bouncy synth-pop dance cut, is like a sequel to “Flagey God,” repurposing one of the latter’s vocal hooks to transition into a shimmering, clubby chorus. “We Were Only Close for Like Two Weeks” is a brief but fun intermission that blends the THC-charged abstractions of the first Big Red Machine album with the glitchy cadences of Bartees’ own “Mossblerd.”
“Cosigns,” one of the album’s singles, pays homage to Bartees’ former tourmates Bridgers, Lucy Dacus and Courtney Barnett, as well as other stalwarts like Justin Vernon and Beggars Group founder Martin Mills, playing out like an indie-rock rendering of Super Smash Bros. (without all the punching and kicking, of course). The first half takes cues from Atlanta hip-hop’s gratuitous, Auto-Tuned braggadocio, only to warp into something more woeful in the second half where Bartees laments his insatiable hunger for leveling up: “How to be full, it’s the hardest to know / I keep consuming, I can’t give it up / Hungry as ever, it’s never enough / It’s never enough.” This stanza in particular predates his Live Forever accolades; it’s a poem he wrote in his early 20s, foreshadowing the frame of mind he would soon occupy. “Tours,” a soft, finger-picked ballad, chronicles Bartees’ itinerant childhood. His father was a geodetic engineer in the Air Force, and his mother was an opera singer. “Where is Kuwait? / Is that in the States?” Bartees asks, capturing the confusion and transience of his youth.
The most poignant track on Farm to Table, though, is the swooning “Hold the Line.” Over slide guitar and sparse instrumentation, Bartees empathizes with George Floyd’s daughter, Gianna. “Again, you’ve taken something of mine / You’re reaching for more than my life / What happened to the man, with that big ‘ol smile / He’s calling to his mother now,” he sings, his voice wavering and unsteady. “Hold the Line” is one among many tender moments composing Farm to Table’s back half. The final two tracks, “Black Gold” and “Hennessy,” round it out, and they exhibit Bartees’ stunning vocal prowess. Though Live Forever has its share of quieter tunes, Farm to Table takes matters a step further by allowing Bartees’ voice to take center stage more often. “Hennessy,” with its rich, stacked harmonies, is one his best songs to date, and it ends the album beautifully, like the sonic equivalent of a sunset.
If “Hennessy” implies sundown, then Farm to Table’s opener, “Heavy Heart,” insinuates a sunrise, a new beginning. It’s a song about moving forward instead of harboring the guilt that you were never meant to carry in the first place. “There’s reasons for heavy hearts / This past year I thought I was broken,” Bartees sings in the first verse, dwelling on collective and personal hardship alike. Toward the song’s denouement, however, he comes to an important realization: Pain is often temporary. Following the suffering is a sense of relief and healing. It’s easy and even sensible to bask in cynicism every now and then, especially given [insert any recent cataclysmic event here]. But housing a heavy heart non-stop is an assured path to emotional and physical deterioration.
Farm to Table, by and large, reckons with Bartees’ life after the immense success of Live Forever. That’s why it’s imperative to take the weight off in whatever way you need to: “Why work so hard if you can’t fall back,” Bartees asks in the song’s final couplet. “Then I remember I rely too much upon my heavy heart.” This is an album about crawling out of the void to find a new light. It’s about recognizing that anguish is only one part of the human experience, how restoration follows suit. Farm to Table, in some ways, is Bartees’ sunrise. It’s proof of his undeniable spark. As Farm to Table demonstrates, Bartees Strange is only getting started.
Grant Sharples is a writer based in Kansas City. He has contributed to MTV News, Pitchfork, Stereogum, The Ringer, SPIN and others. Follow him on Twitter @grantsharpies.