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The other day I was talking about False Priest, the tenth album by Of Montreal, with the erstwhile editor of a leftfield music magazine. He described it as ‘weird’. I stared at the cur incredulously, a flurry of devastatingly eloquent rejoinders leaping out of my throat. ‘But quite a lot of the tracks have choruses!’; ‘You can sort of understand some of the lyrics!’; ‘Yeah, but compared to Skeletal Lamping...’. With due apologies to Terry Waite et al, it sometimes feels that being an Of Montreal fan is a little like coming down with Stockholm Syndrome, insofar as the more one listens to and enjoys the recent recorded output of Kevin Barnes, the more reasonable one begins to think it all is. So yes, Of Montreal remain pretty out there in terms of the general indie firmament, but I am here today to tell you why False Priest is, by Barnes' standards, a pretty straight-down-the-line typa record.
In comparison to 2008’s divisive Skeletal Lamping, that’s going to be pretty obvious. An exhausting, erratic collage of sounds both wanton and abrasive, paired with lyrics ripe with sick, despairing sexual fantasies, even Skeletal Lamping's admirers – and I’m one - are liable to concede it’s not really a slap-it-on-anytime affair. By way of immediate contrast, False Priest opens with ‘I Feel Ya’ Strutter’, a white hot whirlwind of helium-voiced funk goodness on which Barnes sounds so giddily excited you fear he might pass out. The chorus is conceivably suitable for slapping on a compilation tape for one’s beloved (“I see you girlfriend, I got so lucky wit’ chu!”), and the melody is actually allowed to ride out until the end.
The main change here, though, is that the darkness that clouded Barnes’ soul for the last few records has palpably abated. Where Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? and the harrowing Icons, Abstract Thee EP were autobiographical treatises about marital collapse, and Skeletal Lamping dealt with the same issues more impressionistically, you’re probably taking your Barnesology a bit seriously if you do more than chuckle at ‘Our Riotous Defects’, in which poor Kevin goes to extreme lengths to win over a girl only to discover she’s a fish-murdering control freak. And as with ‘I Feel Ya’ Strutter’, the ebullient form counteracts any lyrical unease – it's essentially a disco banger with a killer chorus, one that will clearly lead to it being referred to as ‘Crazy Girl’ by everybody besides its author.
And finally, False Priest is the closest an Of Montreal album has come to not being a Barnes solo project in an age. There are duets with Solange Knowles and Janelle Monae, added production work from Jon Brion, and lush live instrumentation throughout. The guests let some sunlight in: if ‘Sex Karma’ and ‘Enemy Gene’ (the Knowles and Monae songs) are two of the slightest tracks on False Priest, they’re also some of the most relaxed and simply pleasurably music Barnes has made in an age. And who has time to be abrasive when the higher grade production allows ‘Coquet Coquette’ to revel in a majestic, floaty synth solo of pure, Radiophonic Workshop grade delight?
So what are we left with? An inventive, richly melodic and generally superb-sounding record that falls a little short of its two predecessors in terms of cohesion and emotional weight. Certainly it’s somewhat unbalanced by the fact the more substantial material is saved until the very end. The second half run that goes ‘Girl Named Hello’-‘Famine Affair’-‘Casualty of You’ is pretty spotless, but the following ‘Around the Way’ is really something else. A sickly, spindly tumble of electronics erupts into a horribly, heartbreakingly damaged vocal, as Barnes defeatedly pleads ”getting fucked up trying to cure you it’s so draining, really how can I help if you won’t talk to me?” before everything tumbles back into chaos. The man gives good bleak, there is no denying it; in some ways it’s the negative of ‘I Feel Ya’ Strutter’ - similarly open in sentiment, but something you should never, ever play to the person it makes you think of. It’s worth noting, by-the-by that Barnes does some pretty impressive things with his voice throughout False Priest: between the falsetto of ‘...Strutter’ and the Bowie baritone of ‘Girl Named Hello’, False Priest lies a world of expression – tiny, wounded little croaks, yelps of unfettered joy, sussed, sarky deadpan.
Finally, then, we have ‘Do You Mutilate?’, seven audacious minutes over which Barnes pretty much nails every preposterous thing that he’s been trying to accomplish as an artist across this record and the last. It does not feature a chorus. It does feature a vocodered rant about organised religion, references to “suicidal depression”, “Chinese urine”, “Buster Rhyme-ness”, some terrifying ghost child “waaaaaaaaaaaaa-wa” backing vocals, and at least 30 seconds in the middle that just consists of robot burbling noises. And it works, essentially because Barnes believes in it, not just as a singer, but as musician and arranger - the dynamic flights of strings and gaspingly lithe bottom end that bind it together are themselves enough to validate his gravitation towards soul/funk as his medium of choice. But it is the vocals that seal one of the finest songs of Barnes' career: when his phased, weary tones suddenly cut through the murk with the lines “we tried to isolate XX infinite pleasure XY ineffectually; now I know I'm not allowed to show the pain, not allowed to expose the pain” then the pathos is as overwhelming as the sentiment is obscure. And as the track ends, the use of vocodering is such a flagrant acknowledgement of the preposterousness of inserting an atheist diatribe at this point that it somehow makes the line “if you think God is more important than your neighbour you're capable of terrible evil” way more effective than if it had been sung or spoken in any sort of sincere fashion. It works, if possibly only because Kevin Barnes is ridiculous enough to believe it works. And that is the genius of Of Montreal.
So there you go. Not weird at all.
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