Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?
By David Greenwald | 18 January 2007
In an era when iTunes is trying its mightiest to kill off retail at $.99 a song and scattershot mainstream releases continue to undermine the viability of the album format as a means for artistic statements, it’s important to remember that such statements still can — and are — being made. And successfully so, in commercial and artistic senses. Even in hip-hop, a genre that often sacrifices cohesion for the sake of collaboration, resulting in a “too many cooks” (and skits) nature, there are plenty of albums with focus. For every all-star produced Fishscale (2006), there are Clipse and the Neptunes turning out Hell Hath No Fury (2006), a record of singular sonic and narrative purpose.
The lengthy digestion of such an album may not be as immediately satisfying as the quick fix of attention-grabbing novelties; why labor through Malice and Pusha T’s exploration of coke-rap moral dichotomies when Gwen Stefani’s new single samples “The Sound of Music?” Girl Talk’s Night Ripper took this sugar-binging to an extreme in 2006, tearing down the album format as an artistic device thanks to the absolute absence of narrative progression or musical uniformity. Starting off on any moment during Night Ripper dropped you into the middle of an endless tail chase, a glassy-eyed dog winding down Yeats’ gyre ad infinitum. Well, at least for 40 minutes or so.
So Girl Talk crafted an anti-album, but one couched in and limited by the technological and artistic constraints of the album format, an irony that shouldn’t be ignored. Perhaps even 40 minutes is too long. It’s easy, especially for post-Baby Boom rock listeners raised in a culture shaped by Rolling Stone and the Beatles, to forget that the album is a fairly recent development and the conceptualization of it even newer — Frank Sinatra’s first themed LPs are barely a half-century old. But this is the world we live in now, where canonization is equal parts deservedly expanding and inevitably overloading, where new classics are crowned annually by enormous, impossible lists that span genres, labels and styles like never before — and are made largely irrelevant in November or so when the next year’s albums start leaking. (The early spread of the album we’re about to begin discussing made finalizing my own personal year-end critiques an empty exercise.) As attentive listeners and consumers, we’re asked to recognize quality and then choke on it. It’s no wonder most people would rather listen to singles and submit (knowingly or not) to apathy; it seems that being an appreciator of popular music takes almost as much effort as making it.
Of Montreal’s Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, in addition to being flat-out great, is probably, and unintentionally, the first album to address the concerns of a post-blogosphere pop landscape. And I say album — album! — because that’s what it is: not a collection of uncooperative songs, and certainly not a few singles masquerading as a full-length. To listen to Hissing Fauna requires an acceptance of the boundaries of the album form, to see how Kevin Barnes embraces and thwarts them. It necessitates the desire and drive to look for themes and narrative to see how the pieces fit together. Barnes spends 12 songs wringing blood from his broken heart and singing about it with inscrutable joy; it’s intense, powerful stuff, and it needs a full canvas to spread out on.
Statements of this kind are no strangers to fans of Elephant 6, the Athens, GA-based psych-pop consortium of which Of Montreal was once a proud, Beatles-aping member. There’s Neutral Milk Hotel’s towering Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998), of course, and a semi-conceptual release from Beulah (Yoko , the band’s fittingly titled pre-break-up rumination on, well, break-ups) along with Olivia Tremor Control’s soundtrack to a film that never was. Hissing Fauna deserves a place among them, if not Neutral Milk Hotel’s undisputed pedestal. This is the kind of record that rewards careful listens: you’re going to want to free up 51 minutes at a time for it, today and every day for the next few weeks.
But it’s the kind of record that doesn’t need 51 minutes to make its point. It can be made in 2:58 (“Suffer for Fashion”), 3:51 (“Bunny Ain’t No Kind of Rider”) or 11:53 (the Velvet Underground-esque “The Past is a Grotesque Animal,” which has neither chorus nor bridge); it can be made in the lines “Eva / I’m sorry, but you will never have me / To me you’re just some faggy girl / And I need a lover with soul power.” Over the last few years, Of Montreal has brashly, loudly announced its arrival as one of the best bands in indie rock, knocking over dance clubs and headphones alike with a fey electro-pop pastiche that draws equally now on ’70s disco and the band’s psych-pop roots. Hissing Fauna might be Barnes’ finest work yet, an opus built entirely of sugar.
Turn to any song on Hissing Fauna and you land on a winner, and often, a jungle of drum machines and splayed guitars. “The Past is a Grotesque Animal” is the indie-pop answer to “White Light/White Heat,” a messy, chugging beast that finds Barnes free-associating: “How can I explain? I need you here and not here too.” Stumbling on a phrase he likes, he repeats it for emphasis, then, groping at melody, moves on. Barnes has a low attention span, which is good; the album expands on the confident The Sunlandic Twins (2005), dumping the instrumentals in exchange for endlessly rich pop layer cakes. Barnes (who, as usual, did most of the record by himself) is a pop musician of the highest order, knowing when to hold off a chorus and knowing when to embrace it in all its sickly sweet glory. No other Of Montreal album sounds so thick and gooey. Then again, no other Of Montreal album is such a heartbreaker.
Barnes says the album is about getting “divorced from the world,” but mostly it just sounds like it’s about getting divorced. Most of the songs are about women, and most of them offer lyrics melancholy, bitter or angry, as much as indie-pop allows. He makes no bones about it, starting the album with the line: “We just want to emote till we’re dead.” “Suffer For Fashion” is a riff-driven synth-pop celebration akin to The Cars’ “Just What I Needed,” but the enthusiasm soon turns black. “C’mon mood shift, shift back to good again! C’mon, be a friend,” he sings mournfully before a remarkably peppy synthesizer breakdown on “Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse,” a song about the drugs not working. “She’s a Rejector” finds him seeing “the girl that left me bitter / Want to pay some other girl to just walk up to her and hit her / But I can’t I can’t I can’t I can’t I can’t!“
Frustrated lyrics, unfettered music. For years, this dichotomy has defined contemporary music, and it’s one of many, like the most accessible aspects of pop rebelling against the ostensible difficulties of art and now, singles and albums battling for relevance over a digital backdrop. Of Montreal takes it all in stride, really. Rumor is, Polyvinyl Records had trouble deciding on a single and consulted with You Ain’t No Picasso blogger (and owner of multiple Of Montreal shirts) Matt Jordan. He couldn’t pick one, either. Hand this record to a dozen people and you’ll get a dozen responses — making the album-as-Album contradictorily irrelevant and essential. In “The Past is a Grotesque Animal,” Barnes sings “It’s like we weren’t made for this world / Though I wouldn’t really want to meet someone who was.” Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? is an album bemoaning being alone, but it was made for everyone.