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  • Writer's pictureMartin Vaux

Album Review: Ugly is Beautiful by Oliver Tree

Fusing grunge, electro-pop and slacker rap, Oliver Tree’s Ugly is Beautiful is a pretty singular listen – although that’s to be expected considering the years the artist has spent nursing both the project and his public persona.

If you haven’t heard of Oliver Tree then the first thing to say is that you have a world of internet pleasure awaiting you. Full name Oliver Tree Nickell, the Cal Arts graduate launched his career in 2010 or so, primarily through viral comedy sketches on now-defunct social media platform Vine.

Clearly a 90s child, his influences were writ large – the X Games, Jackass, Beck and the Beastie Boys, all put in a blender and launched into a premature recording contract with R&S Records. The first musical fruit of the Oliver Tree then came in the form of a breakthrough reworking of Radiohead’s Karma Police and a sketchy first E.P. entitled Splitting Branches.

While far from brilliant, these early recordings, combined with Tree’s internet fame, showed sufficient promise for Tree to be booked to tour in support slots with artists as diverse as Frank Ocean, Tyler The Creator and Skrillex.

This was a pretty remarkable start, but Tree then did a peculiar thing: he disappeared before, in 2018, suddenly relaunching himself on Atlantic records with a new look. All gaudy pinks and blues, socks and sandals, huge flared jeans, awful wraparound shades, and a signature bowl cut.

The fashion choices accompanied a new single, Alien Boy, which promptly sold 500,000 copies.

Since that time, barely a month has gone by without Oliver Tree dropping a new single, almost every one of them accompanied by a high-concept music video. Along the way, Tree’s music has ranged fairly wildly in genre and style, featuring pilfered Nirvana and Pixies riffs one moment and dubstep belly-burps the next.

The last sixth months have subsequently built up to the release of Ugly is Beautiful, with the definite sense that everything previous had been a bit of a marketing exercise for the album. The tens-of-millions of YouTube hits, the viral comedy videos, the regular gifs and all those shonkily photoshopped images.

The trouble, for Tree, was that his album was scheduled to release at the end of March, just as the pandemic hit. The release date was then pushed back into June when, out of respect for the Black Lives Matter protests, Tree pushed it back again, conscious that his brand of trashy, plastic pop was hardly appropriate given the scale of global events.

For a time, he then appeared to cancel the project altogether, then ultimately took the plunge. The record was finally released today – and it’s pretty darn good.

Unsurprisingly, it features many of the better singles released in the last two years, including Alien Boy, Hurt, Cash Machine, Miracle Man, Let Me Down, and Bury Me Alive. Many of his bigger songs are missing from the 14-tracks available here, but I can understand the logic: the music he has gathered for the album offers something more cohesive than might have been expected from his broader output, with over half of the tunes being previously unheard and mostly great.

Sonically, the album continues to evoke Beck, the Beastie Boys and 90s Grunge, with Tree’s singing voice also somewhat reminiscent of Julian Casablancas of The Strokes. What sets it all apart is the instrumentation, which is largely electronic and packed with the kind of boppy hooks exploited to great effect by The Pinker Tones – a Spanish alt-rock band who few think they know but who most people have heard.

Ultimately though, whether Ugly is Beautiful proves to be a mainstream success still very much hangs in the balance. It’s a strange, deliberately awkward project that embraces similar aesthetics to that of South African techno-rappers Die Antwoord. That band set out to style themselves as ‘Zef’ – deliberately wearing the kind of nylon tracksuits, gold chains and tattoos you might associate with low-rent council estates.

That look, which seethed with ironic aggression, helped to launch Die Antwoord to global renown and a film career, and it may be that Oliver Tree pulls off the same trick here.

What interests me far more than the look of the project, however, is the songs. They sound great – like Billie Eilish grew up, watched a load of Rick & Morty, and decided to be anti-cool instead of ferociously on-trend. It's refreshing, and although a lot is said these days about anti-pop and anti-rap, with many artists leaning a little too heavily on irony, Tree avoids these pitfalls.

Indeed, when it comes to this album it is worth drawing a distinction between the marketing and the music. Under the tacky veneer there is real wit, pain, joy and gravitas. It might sound bizarre on first listen, but give it time – it’s a pretty fantastic shot across the bow of pop in 2020 and, as I have been saying to myself pretty consistently for years now, I cannot wait to hear what he does next.

To watch Oliver Tree's attempt to break the Guiness World Record for riding on the World's Biggest Scooter, click here.

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