Feature: Kevin Barnes : Of Montreal’s Svengali

I’m sitting in my living room after a couple beers and maybe a shot or two of Johnnie Walker Red and I’m on my second spin of the new Of Montreal long player Innocence Reaches. I’m once again in awe of the mighty and ADD-afflicted Kevin Barnes. This album seems to encapsulate all that is Kevin Barnes and Of Montreal. It’s a real musical palette of Barnes-isms.

You’d be hard pressed to find more than an 18-month spread between Of Montreal releases since the very beginning. This is a guy that emerges from these musical chrysalis’ every year and a half as some other personality that lives within this lanky, androgynous man’s body. The twee pop singer/songwriter, the jilted lover, the transvestite party hooker, the slick pop songsmith, the disjointed avante composer, the druggy 60s rocker, and the 70s jaded post-punker; these are all personas Kevin Barnes has portrayed in the 20 years of Of Montreal’s existence.

For me the journey began back in 2007 when I listened to Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer at a Fort Wayne, Indiana Borders Book Store. From there I was hooked. With each record I became more of a fan of this southern musical monster. Part Prince and part alien love child, Kevin Barnes relocated his interests and musical proclivities with each record. And since Hissing Fauna, Barnes has racked up nothing but disdain and critical pans from the music journalism world at large. When I first heard Skeletal Lamping I thought I was hearing the next great phase of music, while most of the official music reviews at large were pretty bad at best. From there False Priest was once again panned. Paralytic Stalks was dismissed as overblown, overreaching, and pretentious. Lousy With Sylvianbriar was the first album since 2007 that actually got some decent love from the music journalism crowd at large. It was a 60s rock throwback, with nods to Dylan, the Stones, and whoever else you want to throw in there. Aureate Gloom, to my ears, was another love letter to a bygone era, but more on the side of 70s New York and the lower east side. Strangely enough, that didn’t tickle the fancy of as many music critics as Lousy.

Fickle little bastards, they are.

Okay, so at this point I know that folks either dig the Barnes musical world or they don’t. There really is no in-between. Kevin Barnes is that guy that is coming up with bigger ideas and onto other things before you can get that last thing firmly planted into your head. I can understand how one might find the guy insufferable. I can dig ones idea of Kevin Barnes as a drama queen, attention getter, and begger to be the center of attention. And if all of that pushes you out of the Barnes camp, well no hard feelings. But for me, Kevin Barnes lives up to the drama. He’s a musical genius that is constantly evolving, reshaping, contouring, and renegotiating his own musical footing. He doesn’t seem content to just remain in one spot and be rooted down to one style, genre, time frame, sexuality, or personality. When the wife and I saw Of Montreal last October I was blown away by how he made the large room of sweaty fans feel like they were involved in some sort of sexual rock and roll exorcism. Costumes, lighting, theater, and rock and roll all built up to some sort of off-broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar meets Bride of Frankenstein with a touch of Gimme Shelter, minus the Hell’s Angels’ manhandling. He may come across as unable to decide on a persona and idea, but really I think he’s exorcising demons each time out. He’s letting the pain and pleasure of life loose with every record. Musical genres and eras are merely the masks he wears when trick-or-treating at our ears.

Okay, so this was going to be a discussion about his tragically misunderstood album Paralytic Stalks, but I’ll be honest with you all I sort of got off point. I feel like all of Mr. Barnes’ personalities and style shifts get in the way of some folks locking in on who Kevin Barnes really is. Who is he really? To my eyes and ears he’s the kind of artist that needs to be evolving constantly or he’ll fade into an obscurity of his own making.  I think Lousy and Aureate were the first two albums where it felt as if he may have locked into a somewhat steady groove and might actually be happy there. Of course, with Innocence Reaches he’s thrown all of that out the window and seems to have begun an EDM phase, but only the way Kevin Barnes could do EDM. I don’t know how an artist can be faulted for that. Dylan went religious, Stones went disco, and the Dead went, well, wherever they went. If those cats can deviate from the recipe, why can’t anyone else without being scrutinized? At some point Ty Segall is going to get Tinnitus and put out a ballad-y piano album, while High On Fire will be going acoustic, so we’ll see how the conversation changes regarding chameleon-like musical shifts.

The Paralytic Stalks conversation will happen soon. For now, I want you to delve into Mr. Kevin Barnes’  and Of Montreal’s discography. The new record comes out Friday(as I said before, it’s really, really good) and I’m working on a proper review of that as well, but I implore you to revisit Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer, Skeltal Lamping, and False Priest. You say you dig the Stones, Dylan, and the Band? Then Lousy With Sylvianbriar will tickle your fancy(promise!) All are absolutely genius and beg for repeated listens. Just jump in and soak them up. Kevin Barnes might annoy at a party, but there’s no denying the guy’s talent.

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