By Chris Molnar | 29 September 2010
Part of what made Of Montreal’s 2004-2008 run exhilarating was watching Kevin Barnes start focusing his talent until it exploded, suddenly aware that everyone was watching and wanted to see what happened next. Satanic Panic in the Attic (2004) spiked twee with electronics and psychology, and every successive album upped the ante. Over a feverish four years, the albums tracked Barnes’ relationship with his wife from honeymoon (2005’s The Sunlandic Twins) to breakup (2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer) to hot, confusing makeup sex (2008’s Skeletal Lamping), all while his trebly dance pop veered from excitement to intensity to deconstruction, rendered viscerally exciting by Barnes’ enticements towards—and confrontations with—his listenership.
The increasingly specific subjects (marriage, sex, Georgie Fruit) of the last few Of Montreal albums made them not just unfettered areas of expression, but engaging ones, thanks to a Bataille-via-Wiseau telegraphing of uncomfortable personal truths. Thus, it’s telling that while Skeletal Lamping got reviewed twice here, nobody wanted to touch False Priest with a ten foot dick, let alone one that shoots confetti. Haters still hate, but not enough to write about it, and the largely positive reviews that have snuck out tepidly praise its accessibility. There’s nothing demanding to be heard, just the unoffensive sound of a “frontal lobe regression” as he puts it on “I Feel Ya Strutter”—good music, sure, but no longer interested in the outside world.
Just because Of Montreal has found a kind of groove—plugging Barnes’ old character sketches into his new ADD fuck-funk (except not funk at all, more like a nervous translation of the idea of funk)—doesn’t mean it sucks, per se. It’s as tight as ever, still the same overeager chord progressions with a little extra sheen courtesy of Jon Brion. And Brion, while out of his grand element, does everyone a favor by letting the rhythm section keep its Barnesian fluttery pep. In my track review for “Coquet Coquette” I posited that Kevin Barnes was slowing down, becoming a late-period self-parody. After listening to the whole album, though, it feels more like I’m the one slowing down while he chugs away on a quieter level much like his hero Prince circa Emancipation (1996). Maybe I’m just not emotionally coked-out enough to really vibe with Of Montreal anymore; “Don’t say that I’ve changed / ‘Cause man, of course I have!” went the most memorable line in Hissing Fauna‘s “Cato as a Pun,” and the lyric now seems oddly prescient in my own relationship with this band.
“Who’s your reggae woman now, do you even know? / I did a line with a girl named Hello,” goes the mantra of “Girl Named Hello.” And those meaningless, narrative non sequiturs are the direction Barnes seems to be heading in: tastefully composed fantasias about vaguely druggy meet-cutes, pinned down by dexterous rhythms. It’s not as urgent as the rest of his post-Satanic output, and the omniscient disconnect from emotions, like that of the bemused boyfriend of “Our Riotous Defects”’s “crazy girl,” makes the lately unmoved remain so. Georgie Fruit was a perfect persona for Barnes since the required embodiment forced a lascivious nowness that suited his hyperactive pop and nearly one-upped his own autobiography; here, he’s counting on us to be along for the ride already, to be listening hard for new synth tones and Janelle Monae, playacting in a kindred soul’s sandbox.
That kind of clubhouse atmosphere is what condemned Of Montreal’s twee children’s albums to a niche audience of similar shut-ins. Tellingly, “Our Riotous Defects” is most reminiscent of “Ira’s Brief Life as a Spider,” a novelty spoken-word track from early in his career, the only difference being that the goofy spider hospital is replaced by recovering alcoholics and their fucked relationship dynamics. After a brief run as a soulful, parodically horny one-man freakshow, Kevin Barnes is slowly sneaking back into his private world, counting on all his newfound listeners to follow him. Songs like the Solange Knowles-graced “Sex Karma” work just like the decade-old lullaby “Happy Yellow Bumblebee.” Both are charming, relatable offerings that act as entryways to more inscrutable songs, all of which keep their emotions on Barnes’ wavelength, forcing us to come closer or shrug it off entirely.
Count among the unknowable such anxious MOR fare as “Famine Affair,” which paranoically repeats, “I don’t love you anymore / Go way go way go way go way” over a late-period Kings of Leon chug. I’m not young enough to keep up with his manic depression without beats and hooks to guide me, especially if it’s cloaked in the kid gibberish that his early fantasy-opuses emerged from the void shrouded in. Of Montreal is still developing, for whatever that’s worth, and for all of False Priest‘s flatness towards the uninitiated it also signals a new direction, as well as a new summation of Kevin Barnes’ unwieldy back catalog. But what does it mean for a grown man to be hiding in the playroom with his new best pals? Of Montreal will always appeal to anyone looking for a world to get lost in. Is it too much to ask for him to visit ours once in a while?