By Alex Szeptycki
Though it’s inconsistent, Oliver Tree’s debut album offers an ample display of songwriting acumen along with his determined eccentricities.
“I’d rather say some stupid things in my life than say nothing at all,” quips Oliver Tree in the liner notes of his full-length debut album Ugly Is Beautiful. This is not just a statement of artistic intent from the Santa Cruz songwriter — it appears to be his declaration of a way of life. Tree has unabashedly woven cultural remnants — cavernous JNCO jeans, atrocious bowl haircut, and travel via Razor Scooter — into a gauche, wisecracking public persona.
This branding shtick would be annoying if there weren’t some talent lurking beneath the heaps of denim and memes. And there is. Ugly Is Beautiful suffers from some inconsistencies, but there is ample display of Tree’s genuine songwriting acumen. His music is a blend of ’90s influences and modern despair, full of energetic melodies and booming trap beats. Over the noise, Tree sings in a shrill, distorted snarl. The resulting mix is curious: an amalgamation of nostalgia and forward thinking — anchored by doses of an excessive personality.
Ugly Is Beautiful contains material from Tree’s past EPs and unreleased material. “Alien Boy,” his most popular release to date, sits halfway through the track list and serves as a sort of centerpiece. And that is apt, because the song showcases almost everything he can do well. He cries “I am an alien among the human beings,” his disconnection from everyday life declared over a lurching beat. It’s a clever take on alienation, but what really makes the song tick is how smoothly Tree overcommits to the act. “I’ll hunt you down like a tyrannosaurus,” he sneers before he details his grotesque physical features. He has an eagle’s beak, ostrich feet, and seven spider eyes. It’s a campy and amusing way to channel this strange take on rebellion –metamorphosis made enjoyable.
Most of the older material on the album works, but there are a few duds. “Introspective,” a holdover from his Do You Feel Me? EP, hasn’t held up as well as other efforts. Tree’s stilted, repetitive delivery of self-questioning lines like “This is overcomplicated/I guess I miscalculated” comes off as juvenile rather than playful. The song’s ponderous guitar lead doesn’t help, weighing the track down further. “Miracle Man,” another EP entry, is more of a mixed bag. Its angst-filled, downtempo hook meshes with a driving verse in which Tree asks “fucking up your life was it enough for you.” But that energy is turned down a notch via a repeated passage that sounds more like whining than singing. Irritating indulgences such as this occasionally chop Tree down.
In truth, what makes or breaks this album is Tree’s fiery persona. When everything clicks, the musician sounds kooky and endlessly fun. When his addled agitation doesn’t slide into place, however, his overwrought delivery quickly becomes grating. In “Me, Myself, and I,” the stomping opener, everything fits beautifully. Abrasive pop punk guitars and synths slowly escalate as Tree exults in his own strange tendencies. Suddenly, the melody is tossed sideways as the drums shift to a cavernous half-time beat, a change as fun as it is jarring. Conversely, “Jokes on You!” is an example of where almost nothing works. “My whole life was just a joke/but I’m still not laughing:” these opening lines are bad high school poetry. Tree’s efforts at rapping do him no favors here; his slow-mo delivery wallows in the ponderous. When he suggests “don’t take yourself too seriously” you can’t help but think he should take his own advice.
What’s so interesting/worrisome about Tree, then, is that he tries so hard to be provocative. His worst bits feel less like shortcomings and more like occupational hazards for the need to be bizzaro. When you build a career out of proudly embracing the stupid, you run the risk of looking, well, plain old dumb. Tellingly, there’s a fine line between Tree’s best and worst ideas. His malaise-ridden approach sounds like grousing on “Let Me Down,” but there are notes of real wounded pain on “Jerk.” “Again and Again” sees the songwriter almost satirizing his trademark high-pitched voice, as screamed backing vocals cascade through the mix. The latter choice is inspired; the manic energy perfectly complements the track’s “Keep your head up” mantra.
Ugly Is Beautiful is at its best when Tree is relaxed enough to channel his eccentricity without becoming off-putting. When he gives up meeting the expectations set up by his crazed public persona, things work far more easily. “1993” is one of Ugly Is Beautiful‘s more self-aware tracks. “Finally I’m finding silver linings/you can catch me coattail riding”: this is one of the more eloquent admissions of clout chasing you’ll find in contemporary music. Toward the tune’s back end, a delightfully harebrained beat switch introduces the album’s only cameo, a strong verse from the mysterious Little Ricky ZR3. His voice is distorted and weird, an unexpected vocal treat. Another daring entry, “Bury Me Alive” sees Tree faithfully echoing the Beastie Boys in a combative and vibrant rap song. The atmosphere, however, is dark and claustrophobic; the songwriter spits out candid memories of a drug trip from hell, along with visions of death. When he raps “carry me away in a coffin/that’s the day that im stopping” defiance overcomes fear, making for a wonderfully twisted romp.
Tree, as an artist, should not succeed. He is obsessed with filling his performances with shamelessly bad ideas. Still, there is something worthwhile here. His willingness to be outlandish — reminiscent of good camp — has inspired pop music that can be as rollicking as it is occasionally confounding. There are times when Tree falls flat on his face, yet, like a cartoon character, he emerges from his rookie album unscathed, ready for his next bout of insanity.
Alex Szeptycki is a student from Charlottesville, Virginia, currently studying at Stanford University. He is majoring in American Studies, with a focus in Contemporary Art and Media. He is currently finishing up his senior year, before looking to pursue a career in writing or the arts.