I feel that I’ve given Kevin Barnes the benefit of the doubt far longer than anyone deserves. I’ve followed along with him and his crazy flights of fancy; through concept albums about transvestite hookers to his attempts at pop crossover to even a stage where he was into avante garde composers. Barnes’ imagination was boundless, as was his ADHD. He couldn’t stay still for long, and as soon as an album would drop he was off to the next extreme 180 degree stylistic move. But no matter if he was playing twee pop, drug-addled IDM, or Stones-y rock and roll, he always sounded like Kevin Barnes. He was boundless creatively in the same way Prince Rogers Nelson was.
Honestly, that’s what I’ve loved about Of Montreal since the beginning. Since I picked up Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer on a whim back in 2007 and immediately got this squeaky, gawky guy laying his anxiety-ridden and anti-depressant-taking heart out for all to read(in his own crazy vernacular, of course.) He isn’t afraid to reach, regardless whether he flies too close to the sun. Of the albums he’s released in the last 10 years, Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer, Skeletal Lamping, and Paralytic Stalks are the most brilliant. I feel he took chances and they paid off. Not everyone feels that way, but that’s just how it goes. With Lousy With Sylvianbriar(2013) and Aureate Gloom(2015) Barnes turned his experimental psych/dance pop outfit into classic rock and roll territory, visiting both late 60s rock and mid-70s post-punk. Barnes put together a real live outfit and recorded live in the studio for those records. With 2016s Innocence Reaches I feel Barnes kind of hit a wall. Feeling the need to mix things up, the sound decidedly switched to a more dance/night club vibe, with Barnes jumping back into his trans persona from the Georgie Fruit days. Toying with sexual identity in the age of Trump and #metoo. This was the first album from Kevin Barnes for me that felt stunted. The first album that didn’t feel like a step forward.
Barnes has returned with Of Montreal’s first album in a year and a half(that’s a lifetime in the world of Of Montreal.) It’s called White Is Relic/Irrealis Mood and it’s inspired by falling in love, the writings of Noam Chomsky, and the extended pop remixes of the 1980s. Kevin Barnes sounds genuinely reinvigorated artistically and personally. That just doesn’t always convert into engaging music.
First things first, Kevin Barnes does sound re-energized here. There’s a sense of urgency in his 80s-inspired tunes. He makes good on the extended remix love here with club-ready tracks like “Soft Music/Juno Portraits Of The Jovian Sky”, “Paranoiac Intervals/Body Dysmorphia”, and the especially fun “Sophie Calle Private Game/Every Person Is A Pussy, Every Pussy Is A Star!”. The latter is the most personal Of Montreal has sounded in a while. Maybe its the urgency of finding new love and the feeling of purpose one finds when their heart is full again. “Writing The Circles/Orgone Tropics” is a dizzying affair. There’s a “come hither” vibe in Barnes’ affected vocals and the thumping bass. The song almost comes across like a Grizzly Bear remix, with the vocals taking an Ed Droste turn at times. “If You Talk To Symbol/Hostility Voyeur” sounds very dramatic. Barnes pulls out some Frankie Goes To Hollywood moves here, but with lyrics that sound inspired by something like Hegemony Or Survival or The Anarchist’s Cookbook.
With all the urgency and anger and raw emotion mixed with the neon glow of 80s b-side extended mixes you’d think this album would pull you in immediately. That’s unfortunately not the case. I think Barnes reached for something big here, but fell short. There’s moments where Of Montreal does succeed here, especially in the fun of “Soft Music/Juno Portraits Of The Jovian Sky” and “Sophie Calle Private Game/Every Person Is A Pussy, Every Pussy Is A Star!”. But elsewhere the tracks seem to be plodding towards an end with no purpose. It’s like a decadent party where the host tantalizes you with thumping bass, beautiful people, and hedonistic goodness only to whisper in your ear what’s wrong with society. Barnes should pull a page from Neon Indian’s party book. Vega Intl. Night School was an album about decadence and 80s club fun and it kept to script. Alan Paloma committed to his hedonistic night life throughout the album and made an honest party record that let you decide whether you wanted to regret it in the morning or not.
White Is Relic/Irrealis Mood isn’t a failure by any means. It hit closer to the mark than anything Barnes has done in a couple albums. But it doesn’t beg repeated listens either.