In ‘San Junipero‘, the exquisite (and greatest, in my view) Black Mirror episode about love, life and death, the main characters, Yorkie and Kelly, walk through a world peppered with non-stop party music from different eras, in search of truth and redemption. Sometimes they visit a club on the margins called the Quagmire where freaks and weirdos intermingle. In this world, there is always an edge, an overall sense of dissonance, an occasional and changing dreamlike quality, a feeling of nostalgia for something you may or may not have experienced.
“UR FUN”, the 16th album from ‘of Montreal’ could easily have served as the soundtrack to that story (Clint Mansell from PWEI actually scored it). It contains ‘of Montreal’s’ usual panoply of aural, lyrical and textural tricks where what you think you are hearing suddenly shifts in a different and unexpected, but not unpleasant, direction. You think you know what is happening, you think you have located yourself in the music and then something sonically weird comes at you that necessitates a recalibration.
This is Kevin Barnes and co’s first album since 2018’s “White is Relic/ Irrealis Mood”. They described that as the falling-in-love record. That makes this album the staying-in-love record. Falling in love was the easy part; this is the interesting part, the challenging part, the next chapter of Kevin Barnes’ autobiographical album streak. It’s another album of personal tracks and see Barnes continuing to emerge from his stage persona, presenting himself as himself on stage in recent times, rather than the character costume he has been wearing.
“UR FUN” is full of boundless energy; pressing play is a bit like taking the lid off a box that is too tightly packed full of stuff, if that stuff is shimmering synths, bouncing beats, glam guitars, layered harmonies and delicious pop melodies with just a hint of agitation. It tells stories of love triangles, lost friendships, and beleaguered mental states and weaves in a litany of literary and cultural references that, in other hands, might come across as just a little too smart and knowing; but not here. The pop stylings of “UR FUN” belie a depth, a darkness and and an intricacy that can feel like a contradiction.
The album is full of diverse and obscure references from the queer novel “Horse Crazy” by Gary Indiana to Big Star’s cover of “Femme Fatale to the beautiful Brazilian love song “Cucurucucu Paloma” by Caetano Veloso, to name just a few. This is the sound of a band trying hard to process everything that is going on around them and in their heads. Whether this is the sound of a band making sense of those things or not, it certainly creates a fantastically engaging sound.
It’s arguable that this is ‘of Montreal’s’ most mainstream sounding album to date. Although it contains the esoteric hallmarks of the band, the song structures on “UR FUN” are less obviously and overtly complicated and meandering in their construction and more subtle and accessible. That isn’t a criticism in the slightest as the band still manage to infuse the songs with enough odd turns and unusual sounds to make them worthy of place in the ‘of Montreal’ canon. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this is a career ‘best of’, given the quality of the songs Barnes has included. I guess that would be the Best of of Montreal?
On “UR FUN”, Barnes candidly, optimistically and broodingly exposes the depths of his current life, his private thoughts and his passionate relationship with songwriter Christina Schnieder of Locate S,1. After several albums recorded with a changing roster of collaborators and band members, Barnes recorded this one completely alone at his home studio in Athens, Georgia, working long days arranging manic synth and drum machine maps on a computer screen with bouncy, melodic basslines, glam guitars and layered vocal harmonies.
Barnes says that the album’s opener and first single, “Peace To All Freaks” is a “protest song against totalitarianism, familial terrorism and wastefulness in all its forms” that expresses love to the outcasts and the gentle people in this world, leaving us with this reminder:
Don’t let’s be cynical
Don’t let’s be bitter
If you feel like you can’t do it for yourself then do it for us”.
On “Polyaneurism”, Barnes playfully meditates on the ups and downs of polyamory and unconventional relationships: “Playing musical lovers is starting to feel kind of kitsch/ if you want monogamy are you just like some basic bitch?” According to Barnes, the song “Get God’s Attention by Being an Atheist” is about “the pleasures of childlike destruction and reckless joy seeking.”
“Gypsy That Remains” includes a contribution from the aforementioned Locate S,1 and is dreamy, synth pop, 80s inspired romp. Similarly, “You’ve Had Me Everywhere” is an epic synth number that sounds like it might have been in the running for lead song from The Never Ending Story. It’s lyrics are all intense vulnerability, open book declarations of love and passion, giving yourself to someone else – oh, and a McCartney reference for good measure:
I no longer feel like lying is just a form of self-love, at least not to the same degree
Diamanda Galas said that mortality’s insulting and now I tend to agree
Ooh, now, I treasure the day we made the promise to always sing No More Lonely Nights
You’ve inspired me unconsciously into somehow living my favorite life”
“Don’t Let Me Die In America” is an uncompromising statement on the current state of the US set a chugging glam rock guitar. Barnes lists all of the places he doesn’t want to die with the repeated refrain of: “Don’t let me die in America, I don’t even want to haunt this place”, counterpointing this with a list of the places he would be prepared to die.
The album ends with some darker numbers that lament a lost friendship and slips of mental clarity but the overall feel of UR FUN is redemptive and upbeat. The thumping electro-pop stylings certainly help with that, but you get the sense that Barnes – through his music – is getting to grips with living in such a complex, crazy, ever changing world and might even by enjoying it.