Warning: This review contains language not suitable for children. For realz.
During the first phase of the band and its pinnacle, 1999's The Gay Parade, of Montreal was a psychedelic-pop-rock band and included a full band and a cast of Elephant 6 characters on the records. By the time of 2004's fantastic Satanic Panic in the Attic, Kevin Barnes was working mostly on his own in the studio, and synths and drum machines were worming their way deeper into the mix. On last year's amazing Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, electronics ruled and Barnes' insane self-harmonizing vocals were taken to the extremes. It was also his most consistent set and was simultaneously his catchiest and darkest, written when he was separated from his wife and new child. Barnes and his family have been back together awhile now, and Barnes is attempting to follow up his most critically acclaimed record to date. Barnes is pulling out all the stops, and even the packaging options are worth mentioning, but I'll let Pitchfork explain that with great pics of the collection.
On Skeletal Lamping, Barnes is untethered by these things we call 'tracks.' The sleeve lists 15 of these so-called tracks, but the record plays like one long piece with over 30 movements. You'll initially be confused as the music drastically shifts gears mid-track or changes track without notice, but soon you'll start to appreciate the crazy transitions and the constant barrage of new ideas. I believe there is only one instance of between-track silence. And there is certainly nothing on here like the previous album's 12-minute constant-tempo centerpiece, "The Past Is a Grotesque Animal."
Barnes puts his audience to the test immediately. "Nonpareil of Favor" begins the album pleasantly enough with a dancey beat, a catchy vocal full of Barnes' flourishes and sweet piano part. But just over a minute in the tempo downshifts and starts jack-hammering your eardrums with the most powerful guitar an of Montreal song has ever heard, pummeling you with dissonant chords and pointy lead lines for close to four minutes while slowly adding backbeat and melody bits back into the chaos. If you can make it past that you're in good shape, because rest of this bizarre-pop set is pretty melodic. My favorite stretch of the record is when it cools down briefly for the simple piano ballad "Touched Something's Hollow" before blasting into the brass-driven intro of "An Eluardian Instance" with its something like four different parts that all rule.
Kevin Barnes has fully accepted his role as the indie rock Prince, going back to the liner notes of The Sunlandic Twins. Think about it. He's a tiny man. He wears crazy clothes. He gravitates towards notes in the highest of male registers and often shrieks 'woo!' But most of all, he's a FREAK. Check out some of these doozies scattered about the album, taken out of context and listed together for greatest effect: "I wanna make you cum two hundred times a day" ("Gallery Piece"); "I'm just a black she-male" ("Wicked Wisdom"); and "We can do it softcore if you want, but you should know I take it both ways" ("For Our Elegant Caste")...and that's just scratching the surface. Then there's the most Prince-sounding of all, "Plastis Wafer." The first part of the song is a light funk which finds Barnes actually at a more restrained tone, returning often to a chorus of "I want you to be my pleasure puss / I wanna know what it's like to be inside you." He even uses sexual terms in non-sexual situations, from the safe "Don't you pimp out my heart" ("An Eluardian Instance") to the more out-there "I'm so sick of sucking the dick of this cruel, cruel city" ("St. Exquisite's Confessions"). These quote-ables might seem shocking coming from a family man, but not as shocking for a family man who has appeared on stage pants-less. I won't subject you to that image, but check out these pics from the outrageous stage show they put on recently in NYC (no nudity unless you count the horse): here.
Barnes says that none of this is meant to shock. Yeah, right. The guy must be a bit freaky if his noggin' is coming up with this stuff, but his safe-guard is he's taking on characters. The lead role of this sex-capade would be Georgie Fruit, who turned up briefly on Hissing's "Labyrinthian Pomp." Barnes has created a whole back story for this guy, and the most relevant part of it for you confused readers would be that Georgie is quite a confused guy himself who was born a male, changed to female, then changed back. Also, he's African-American for some reason (the 'black she-male' thing makes sense now, huh?).
In other tunes, his characters are warning friends of getting involved with sex fiends. "Beware Our Nubile Miscreants" is a highlight of the record's later portion with the oft-returning chorus hook over different lyrics, echoing breakdown and real-drum outro. First single "Id Engager" is the closer of the record and seems to be written as such with none of the bizarre tempo changes but plenty of spunk and a danceable disco groove. It is difficult to point out other standout tracks because you get lost in the record as a whole and noting some part 2:45 into a track or something seems silly.
In a self-penned press release Barnes says, "I wanted to make a record that could truly surprise a listener. To create something that was, in turns, enraging, joyous, discomforting, playful, lovely, unpleasant, freaky [and] mesmeric…" and he succeeds on all levels. With the first listen, the lyrics and odd transitions will have you wondering what they'll do next. But as you become more acquainted with the record the transitions will make perfect sense and you'll love sassin' along with lines like "I'm the motherfuckin' headliner, bitch you don't even know it!" I didn't think the Barnes could top Hissing but I think we have a new high-water mark here and the risks he takes totally pay off. I agree with Barnes that we live in a pop music world where we can "finish an artist's sentences, musically and lyrically" and he should be commended for avoiding that.
While of Montreal is an extremely polarizing band and many of you will disagree with me (ex-fans included), I am to the point of loving this record where I can almost say this is some sort of historically significant release, if only in the indie world. I won't name-drop certain overused critics' reference points from, say `66 or `67, but I must say that in a similar way, of Montreal is pushing pop music boundaries to new extremes while somehow retaining the key elements of listenability and replay value.