Kevin Barnes’ flamboyant, experimental, fascinating band Of Montreal released their ninth album, Skeletal Lamping in 2008. That was a florid, funk-laden, concept-led depiction of gender, sexuality and identity issues and was a remarkable if complex (often confused and confusing) work. This latest release, while sharing some of these esoteric elements, appears overall to be a somewhat calmer, even – whisper it – more grounded piece.
Much more focus this time round seems to have been placed on romance and love. Once you get over the self-conscious hipster persona cleverly evoked in it, the description in ‘Our Riotous Defects’ of the love-interest as having “that kind of beauty that makes people nervous” is simply touching. Similarly, in opener ‘I Feel You Strutter’ Barnes admits to feeling “so blessed” and “lucky“. Less conventional, the admission that “Your sex karma must be good cos I’m funny for you” in ‘Sex Karma’ nonetheless comes across as a lover’s declaration. That this love tips over into heartbreak at times – as on ‘Coquet Coquette’ where “You give me emotional artefacts that can find no purchase” or ‘Like A Tourist”s “They break our hearts like it’s our birthdays” – only reinforces how deeply felt it is.
The language used is often complex, convoluted and arrestingly different from standard lyrical fare. There are not many bands that would not only use couplets like “You fetishise the archetype” (from ‘Like A Tourist’) or “Absorb celestial items from neutral stations” (‘Around The Way’), but make their use sound so perfectly right in the context of their music. This is, in any case, offset by their obvious enjoyment of the vernacular: “I know it’s fucked up“, admits Barnes on ‘Our Riotous Defects’, and elsewhere he sings of “all this shit” and “getting fucked up” with equal aplomb.
After the band’s collaboration with rising R&B superstar Janelle Monae on her ArchAndroid album earlier this year, the favour is returned here. The resulting track – ‘Enemy Gene’ – is quite wonderful (one of the album’s strongest) and would have fitted in equally well on Monae’s album as here, with its depiction of sentient robots (“How can we ever evolve when our gods are so primitive?” and “They want to disable my system“) and her beautiful, drowsy, sultry-yet-melodious vocal. Monae’s presence on ‘Our Riotous Defects’ is less obvious, although also credited. The other headline contribution is Solange (sister-of-Beyonce) Knowles, who duets with Barnes on ‘Sex Karma’, another album highlight, all drawled R&B innuendo and sparky chemistry.
These two guests contribute, in part, to the musical funkiness on much of this album. The joyous mish-mash of styles, though, also takes in some quite dark, hard guitar riffs, some melodramatic “musical theatre” style piano, D.I.S.C.O. grooves and even some squelchy, glitchy synths. As with the words, one of this band’s gifts appears to be the ease with which they jumble the disparate sounds together into a whole that ought not to work quite as well as it, simply, does.
One of the most remarkable moments comes right at its end. As the long, scattergun final track ‘Do You Mutilate?’ draws to a close the last few lines are a brilliant dissection and refutation of wars and violence conducted in the name of religion. “When will certain people realise an after life is nothing to live for, nothing to die for, nothing to fight for?” intones Barnes. “If you think god is more important than your neighbor, you’re capable of terrible evil. If you think some prophet’s words are more important than your brother and your sister, you’re ill. And you’re wrong. You’re wrong” he continues. As the final words on the whole thing, it’s an impressive and bold statement, much sterner and angrier-sounding than the rest of this loved-up, witty, wordy confection of an album.