Bike For Three! - So Much Forever
This album is brilliant, because it isn't very good. Yeah yeah, you've probably read that line a million times. No name blogger tries his hand at a Call Me Ishmael moment to draw you in. Well, read on and I will present the perfect argument for giving this sub-par record an 8 out of 10.
Bike For Three!, if you didn't know, is a collaboration between the rapper Buck 65 and producer Greetings From Tuskan. Buck 65 is a poetic lyricist who's lineage can be traced back through Sage Francis, Atmosphere and The Beastie Boys. Greetings From Tuskan is the project of Joëlle Phuong Minh Lê, a Belgian who produces beautiful ethereal music that sits somewhere between Iceland Brooklyn. Adaptable, versatile. The interesting thing is that these two have never met. They hooked up on the frankly stunning More Heart Than Brains in 2009, and have teamed up for So Much Forever in 2014.
Buck 65 is a poet. His earlier work is laced with beautiful imagery, complex rhyming structures and the kind of story telling that would make Johnny Cash proud. He is a journeyman of the highest order, a cowboy with a heart the size of a zeppelin, and as fragile. I saw Buck in 2010, a performing veteran. I took a girl who dislikes rap music. In 90 minutes she fell in love, and my heart exploded.
He introduced a beautiful song that appeared on his Dirtbike series, a collection of 60 songs that he released for free in 2008, called She Said Yes. It was later included on 20 Odd Years, his most recent studio album, and is the story of his proposal to then girlfriend, and her acceptance. It is a beautiful, slow, romantic number written by a man who was desperately in love and desperately euphoric that he would be able to marry the woman of his dreams. More Heart Than Brains spawned from this mindset, an absolute jerker of an album. It had such a lasting impact on me emotionally that I cannot even touch it anymore, it hit me right between the ribs in my love muscle and I haven't recovered enough to revisit it. It was one of the most beautiful, amazing things I have ever heard.
Now it is 2014, and Buck 65 has been very active on his Facebook. There was a period last year when every morning I'd awake to a new story from him, something from his past. Such a gifted yarn slinger, the internet hung on his every word. But there was a dark place that was often mentioned but never explored. He'd had his heart broken. I don't know how, I don't know why, but it was broken and possibly beyond repair. 2013, when most of the writing and recording for So Much Forever took place, was not a happy place for Buck, as his stories told of loneliness, depression, a loss of identity and a lack of emotion.
Not the kind of place to be when approaching a project such as Bike For Three!, who have always prided themselves on the beauty of love within life. The Intro alone is a clear statement, a muted heartbeat pulsing over a dense electronic haze, punctuated by delicate synths that burble with expectancy. Full Moon then breaks like the start line in a 100 metre dash, Buck breathlessly whispering 'How did it bleed? It bled like fire' before the beat explodes in to Joëlle's most hip-hop focused work since MC Space. Buck is tense, anxious, aggressive like a caged animal, 'who can sleep at a time like this?', almost as if a beast is awakening inside him, desperate to get loose. It's a far cry from the almost placidity he displays on More Heart Than Brains. There's something amiss..
A quick perusal of the tracklisting reveals more. Songs like Agony, Heart As Hell, Wolf Sister, The Last Romance, Successful With Heavy Losses. This is more like something Trent Reznor or Josh Homme would consider romantic, a sledgehammer of negative emotions rather than a scalpel of purity. Buck has checked out. He wrote on his Facebook not a couple of days ago about a girl he had met, who asked him whether it was possible to be loved if you didn't love yourself. This inherent question and tension is present in the entire record, and it is orchestrated and facilitated brilliantly by Joëlle. On Heart As Hell, a foreboding string section gives way to an almost triumphant piano riff, before Buck whispers 'I have two hearts and one of them is hard as hell, its scarred shell cracks as it starts to swell, the heart is hell' before his rejection of his most pure organ, 'I followed my heart, and misled by my heart' as it trails off in to a smoke haze sunset.
The brief for Bike For Three! was always more heart than brains. It was to paint a musical vista of stunning shapes and soundscapes that Buck could then weave his wizardry through, touching each piece of the landscape with a magic wand that made it even more vivid than it already was. It was a Lord of the Rings novel; a journey, punctuated by beauty and nostalgia. Even tracks like Nightdriving had such a wonderful cadence that the listener was completely seduced by the mastery of technique and form. So Much Forever is none of these things. Rather than doling out vivid imagery and dynamic colours, everything Buck touches turns brown, his presence a soured expression, a morose being. On Successful With Heavy Losses Joëlle concocts a shrill siren-like drone that is quite stunning, until Buck slides in and rhymes mess with test, and usual with mutual, sucking the life out of the middle of the song until it is a hollow shell.
Eventually this drain becomes apparent in the production too. You Can Be Everything becomes a by the numbers drum beat, The Dream is a desperate attempt to recreate the magic of Lazarus Phenomenon, and Stay Close Until We Reach The End is an industrial strength grate that would put Yeezus to shame. But the most depressing aspect is Buck. Once so full of life and vibrant emotion, his voice lacks impact. It's not as though he is going through the motions, putting in a sub par performance. He is searching for that magic, aware that it isn't there but you can feel him tearing his hair out, desperate to recreate it. By the time we get to Conflation, a direct reprisal of 50 Gallon Drum from Talkin Honky Blues, he is exhausted. Limited to spoken word, he says things like 'Lets refuse to take part in the future' and 'We're blind owls in elevator shafts' ' drawn on hearts'.
So my justification. 8/10. Without a doubt. This is art, plain and simple. What you are witnessing is the dark, desolate depths of a soul that is searching for meaning, one that is reeling and lost, broken and stepped on. The beauty lies within the struggle, the clawing to get back to where he was, the battle and war being waged in such a gentle heart. This is one of the starkest examples of a broken heart I have witnessed in music. I've heard people sing about it, I've even been there when people have created music about me breaking their heart. But this resonates so much. And Joëlle, despite having never even met the man, matches his darkness so expertly its as if she's known him for decades. From the cagey angst of Full Moon, the regret tinged hue of Wolf Sister and the playful interlude of You Can Be Everything, her production is as desolate as Bucks mood.
And this is the funny thing. If you didn't know any of this, you'd toss this on the heap. So Much Forever finds both artists well below their respective peaks. So little emotion, such a lack of organic chemistry, a complete change from More Heart Than Brains. In fact since Dirtbike, with the occasional exception (Dang, Joey Bats, 1957), Buck has been gradually building to a moment of mediocrity like this. I don't believe he loves himself anymore. Yet somehow, without trying to, he has created a mecca for those searching for reason and meaning in loss to trek to.
Best Tracks: Full Moon, Wolf Sister, Heart As Hell