Kevin Barnes has played many roles in his nearly 20 year music career. There was the folksy pop guy, the jilted lover, the struggling husband and father, the party monster, the transvestite hooker, the avante garde composer, and the rock and roll warrior. But the role Barnes plays best is Kevin Barnes. The guy that’s always reaching for something else. The wanderer. The confused, elegant philistine that tows the line between masculine and feminine. That’s the role Kevin Barnes was born to play, and his best albums have shown us that side of him. Albums like Satanic Panic In The Attic, The Gay Parade, Sunlandic Twins, HIssing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer, and Skeletal Lamping had Barnes searching for meaning in sexuality, monogamy, adultery, faith, matrimony, and fatherhood. His one-two masterpieces, 2007s Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer and 2008s Skeletal Lamping had Barnes in a mental spiral, struggling with the isolation of being a husband and father and simultaneously embracing and rejecting those identities. The results were a claustrophobic pastiche of both a mental breakdown and the drugs that helped to cope with it(Hissing Fauna), and the eventual “Screw it” declaration and giving into his darker proclivities by creating some hedonistic transvestite party monster to help him work through those desires a sane person keeps hidden deep down in their psyche(Skeletal.)
It’s rare we go more than 18 months without some sort of musical artifact from Of Montreal, and just 17 months after Aureate Gloom was released, Barnes has presented us with Innocence Reaches. Barnes seems to have found the world of EDM as his musical conduit and it fits him well. Not that he hasn’t delved into electronic music in the past, but this record seems to embrace more of a modern sound as opposed to the self-made sounds he’s used in the past.
“How do you identify/How do you I.D/Are you something fashion wild?/Talk to me, talk, talk, talk to me” opens the album on “Let’s Relate”, which is a stunning introduction into this new world Of Montreal resides in. The song is a statement in figuring out who one is and how we fit into the world around us. The discussion of gender identity has been a huge topic the last couple of years(RFRA, anyone??), so this song feels particularly poignant. “It’s Different For Girls” comes roaring in like a party freight train. It has the flow and musical moves Barnes has delivered in the past but with a lighter tone. He sounds like he’s having more fun this time around. “Gratuitous Abysses” sounds like something left over from Aureate Gloom with it’s punky guitar and Richard Hell-ish manic delivery. “My Fair Lady” is low key and a little dark with talk about self-cutting and sharing this behavior in photo form. Musically there’s a mix of Sunlandic Twins plastic funk and more recent dirty disco grooves. “A Sport And A Pastime” is quite stunning in it’s claustrophobic techno and lovelorn lyrics. “Ambassador Bridge” is a groove-fronted song that plays past and present dance tropes that work together quite well while Barnes makes it his own. “Nursing Slopes” is another classic Of Montreal song, steeped in a loping groove and melancholy vocal moves that Barnes is quite adept at.
I think the biggest problem here is that Barnes didn’t go all in when it came to the EDM side of things. He peppers the album with bits of past accomplishments when I think he should’ve just given in to the that “Special K” high and let the dance floor take him where it may. While tracks like “Gratuitous Abysses”, Les Chants De Maldoror”, “Def Pacts”, and “Chaos Arpeggiating” are great Of Montreal tunes, they seem to divert from the EDM theme. An Of Montreal EP would’ve been a great home for those tunes.
Innocence Reaches is yet another example of the endless worlds that live and take residency in Kevin Barnes’ head. It has moments of absolute brilliance, and the rest is still pretty damn good. See you in a year and a half, Kevin.