Of Montreal, and particularly bandleader Kevin Barnes, has long been a game changer—at least within the microcosm of Barnes’ own oft-demented, mercurial universe. In the early days, Barnes’ obsession was pairing whimsical love-based lyrics with ‘60s psychedelic twee pop (see “Let’s Do Everything for the First Time Forever”). After he got settled into that style, he ventured into heavy electronic influences on Satanic Panic in the Attic, then he charged into more rave-meets-P-Funk territory on Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, and exploring funk like never before on Skeletal Lamping.
You have to admit—it’s hard to believe that the band on False Priest (the newest LP) is the same band that emerged from the renowned Athens music scene in the late ‘90s.
Of Montreal’s discography might be more prone to evolution than a common three-stage Pokémon, and that’s admirable—but you have to ask yourself: does this evolution amount to a good direction, musically speaking? Underneath all of the theatricality, groovin’ basslines, and bizarre bisexual vignettes, is there some substance?
The short answer for False Priest, if you want it so soon, is “yes.” It’s a conditional “yes,” but a “yes” nonetheless. On this album, instead of each song mutating and morphing into different ideas before your very ears in spastic, few-second intervals (as was the case on Skeletal Lamping), you have slightly more cohesive songs. The stylistic zig-zagging is just as present as ever, but instead of each track darting through genres and eras, we get a track-by-track treatment. You might get the surprisingly hard-rocking “Coquet Coquette” one moment, and the Prince-esque “Girl Named Hello” the next. The songs, to Barnes’ credit, are much more linear—there’s not a lot of cross-pollination going on, but there’s still a profound and surreal feeling of disconnect that you don’t necessarily want from a concept album, even a concept album about the royally screwed-up Georgie Fruit.
The falsetto vocals, surreal stream-of-consciousness spoken word parts, and funk vigor continue where Skeletal Lamping left off (almost as if the music never actually stopped). In fact, the territory seems a little too familiar, and retreading proves to be one of Priest’s major downfalls. Dwelling on Georgie Fruit and the music that the character brought with him/her (primarily funk) contradicts the essence of this flamboyant, progressive persona that Barnes has adopted. Of course, if we’re talking about progression, at least this is the tightest Of Montreal has ever sounded, which the band owes to producer and studio instrumentalist Jon Brion (Kanye West, Fiona Apple). Brion doesn’t quite capture the intensity of this band’s live performance, but he comes close. There are times when you can’t help but wish Brion would have kept Barnes’ whims in check: for instance, the shrill, sassy falsetto that characterized Georgie Fruit on Skeletal Lamping has become a little too shrill, making songs like “I Feel Ya Strutter” downright unlistenable. Barnes might want to, in general, consider retiring Fruit, who’s got to be really sick of sucking the you-know-what of Barnes’ “cruel, cruel city” by now.
The strongest songs on this album are indeed the tracks that reflect new sonic ideas Barnes has never really pressed to record before: the hard rocking NYC-post punk influenced “Famine Affair”, the Todd Rundgren-esque “Casualty of You”, and the slightly eerie and synthy “Around the Way”—which make a powerful threesome toward the album’s end. Barnes invited a couple of excellent guest stars to contribute to False Priest, such as Janelle Monae and Solange Knowles, but unfortunately, he undercuts them by giving them somewhat forgettable songs. “Enemy Gene”, touting vocals from Monae, is probably the strongest and most inwardly innovative song of the guest slots.
This feels like Of Montreal in transition, much in the same way Hissing Fauna did—that album had flashes of funk and fun electronica, ushering in Georgie Fruit, and these ideas came back even more fully realized on Skeletal Lamping. Each album in this band’s discography spends time exploring itself, but there’s always a glimmer of what’s to come next. With someone as prolific and creative as Barnes, it’s impossible to tell what the future holds. He’s like someone who speaks his way through his thought processes and train of thought, and you’re just along for the journey until he reaches his final mental destination. There’s nothing wrong with that, necessarily—if it means each album is going to be 60 percent enjoyable and 40 percent dud city, then so be it. The enjoyable bits are well worth the ride.