Album review: Oliver Tree proves he’s more than a meme in eccentric debut album ‘Ugly is Beautiful’
(Courtesy of Atlantic Records)
“Ugly is Beautiful”
By Vivian Xu
July 17, 2020 3:18 p.m.
Oliver Tree has always walked the line between meme and musician – but his debut album is proof that he is much more.
For those who haven’t listened to Tree before, the jarring album cover of the bowl cut artist sporting his signature clout goggles while being engulfed in flames is an excellent indicator of what to expect in his eccentric release. The enigmatic Tree deviates from his usual rap-rock style in favor of more alternative-pop tracks, all the while peppering a bit of social commentary into his surprisingly introspective songs.
While a large handful of the album’s tracks are previously released singles, they are interspersed between his newer works and offer a subtle reminder of how far Tree’s sound has developed. Fan favorites like “Alien Boy” and “Hurt” stand in contrast to his fresher, more robust tracks that experiment with pop-like vocal melodies and his own vulnerability.
Tree hits the ground running with the opening track “Me, Myself & I,” which commences with upbeat electric guitar and sparse hip-hop beats. The song’s unfiltered lyrics serve as a fitting introduction for the rest of the tracks, which are all ultimately Tree’s own uncensored thoughts with some tasteful sentiments mixed in.
In his lead single, “Cash Machine,” bold acoustic guitar chords ground Tree’s social commentary as he belts out a critique of materialism and the delusions of grandeur it brings. Accompanied by pounding beats, the strumming swells as the track approaches its chorus, cleverly matching Tree’s increasingly heated interrogation – “What’s it all for? / Why’s it seem like you still want more?”
Yet Tree proves he is capable of sentimentality, as shown in “Let Me Down,” a track anchored by lively bass notes and overlaid with vulnerable pleas. Released in April, prior to his album’s original debut date, the song begins with him begging for his fans to forgive the album’s postponement. Catchy harmonies and Tree’s wholesome final lyric that he “won’t come around” rescue the otherwise wishy-washy and monotonous song.
And while some tracks may be repetitive, they are favorable alternatives to the jolting “Bury Me Alive,” where Tree raps about the hallucinogenic experience of watching his own funeral during a Burning Man festival. Wonky disco beats are an alarming choice to back his vocals. Moreover, strange instrumentation evocative of a rookie DJ learning how to spin a track adds to the song’s jumbled structure. Unfortunately, the shaky production ultimately sours Tree’s attempt at comically documenting an otherworldly experience.
Thankfully, the album redeems itself with “Joke’s On You!,” a bitter track that opens with an eerie minor melody, which is a haunting and unfamiliar sonic territory for the artist. Corroborated by menacing sounds of laughter and wailing from Tree, the song’s lyrics chronicle the toxicity he has faced as a result of his unconventional behavior – “They’ve been laughing at me since the day I was born.” Even under the guise of brash instrumentation, his discomfort at such criticism is heartbreakingly palpable.
But nowhere else is Tree as perfectly in sync with his production as he is in “Waste My Time,” a standout angsty track that seems to perpetually intensify until the listener is finally propelled toward a more relaxed chorus. The artist’s blistering lyrics mock those who are desperate to fit into a predetermined mold, his agony matched by the fiery electric guitar. A dramatic outro wonderfully closes the song as Tree chants a mantra of independence that leads to a gradual instrumental fade, the guitar dissolving along with his patience to put up with posers.
Closing out the album with the aptly titled “I’m Gone,” Tree uses this melancholy track to bid adieu to his fans. His farewell is amplified by bare guitar instrumentation, spotlighting his uncharacteristically rueful lyrics. But unsurprisingly, the tender goodbye is juxtaposed by aggressive production and a shouting chorus, abruptly reminding the listener that Tree is in control and will do as he pleases.
Even though Tree has publicly stated that this debut album will be his last, fans are not convinced. And they have every reason to doubt his retirement if the album’s whiplash-inducing shifts in tone are at all indicative that Tree’s own thoughts are frequently subject to change.
So does Tree’s first and last album live up to his larger-than-life persona? Probably not. But does it deserve a round of applause? Certainly. The release stands as a welcome arrival to a new, sonically sophisticated Tree and pleasantly surprises listeners with his sensitive side – one that has usually been veiled in his previous works.
And it’s reassuring to hear that underneath his ridiculous bell-bottom jeans and oversized fluorescent windbreaker, Tree is human too.