Of Montreal’s 2007 album, Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?, is one of the best ‘breakdown’ albums ever. In a reversal of most artistic endeavours, the more self-indulgent and navel-gazing singer-songwriter Kevin Barnes’ writingbecame, the more inclusive and enjoyable the album proved as a listening experience. The follow-up, 2008′s Skeletal Lamping, took the funky rhythms and sex-fixated lyrics of Hissing Fauna and screwed them up into a knotty, continuous song cycle. It proved mostly successful, although even Skeletal Lamping’s most avid fans are unlikely to listen to it regularly.
False Priest’s pre-release blurb suggested that Barnes had taken the R&B elements of Hissing Fauna and Skeletal Lamping and, with the help of safe-pair-of-hands producer Jon Brion, kicked them into chart-bound shapes. This is indeed Of Montreal’s best-sounding record to date. While previous Of Montreal albums resembled the results of Brian Wilson let loose on GarageBand, False Priest rides on a big, fat low-end and glistens with plenty of instrumental detail.
It’s a shame, then, that too many of the songs on False Priest don’t match the coherence and precision of the production. On first listen, it resembles Skeletal Lamping’s exhausting sprawl, chopped up into bitesize portions. It’s a difficult album: although repeated listens uncover some gems, the charms of a fair few songs remain hidden even after multiple plays.
First, though, the good stuff. The single Coquet Coquette nails the sexy strut that some of the other tracks reach for, but miss. The sweet Hydra Fantasies would have sounded at home on Prince‘s Around The World In A Day. Enemy Gene (featuring Barnes’ pal and rising R&B star Janelle Mon�e) is a feather-light pop delight, boasting comfortably the album’s best chorus. Sex Karma, a duet with Solange Knowles, is good, too.
Unfortunately, False Priest’s second half is clogged up with some of Barnes’s least appealing songs to date. Casualty Of You and Around The Way succeed in sounding anguished; unfortunately, they also succeed in sounding tuneless. His delivery on the ex-baiting Famine Affair (“I don’t want you anymore / I don’t love you anymore… You’re a bad thing / You horrible thing”) recalls the deranged self-pity of Mel Gibson on his (alleged) recent phone calls – hardly Barnes’ fault, but it’s still hard to listen to.
Most baffling of all is closer You Do Mutilate? For the first two minutes Barnes yelps about “conversation rape” and “Japanese urine”; the track then lurches gracelessly into a middle third that sounds like The Rolling Stones‘ Ruby Tuesday, before a robotic voice takes centre stage, intoning ominous lines like “All the white people from my neighbourhood are dead / All the black people have turned pink for the winter”.
Kevin Barnes has long been a witty lyricist whose words alternate between bracing candour and entertaining nonsense. On False Priest, the latter tends to take precedence, as on Like A Tourist (all together now: “You go to your favourite dark place / Think of the auto-de-f� / Unicorns eating baby meat…You fetishise the archetype”). Only Our Riotous Defects rivals the shock value of Hissing Fauna tracks like The Past Is A Grotesque Animal, with its admittance that the narrator “hooked up with one of your cousins / Just to feel somehow closer to you”. But the Valley Boy accent adopted by Barnes to deliver these lines implies that this isn’t a confession wrenched from his the seedier corners of his personal life.
If False Priest aims to meld seamlessly Kevin Barnes’ interest in R&B with his psychedelia-influenced songwriting, then the album lands wide of the mark. Whether False Priest proves to be the climax of what music academics might term the band’s ‘funk phase’ remains to be seen. If not, there’s still enough interesting material here to suggest that the next attempt will be worth hearing.