Some things can be relied upon, and Kevin Barnes’ Of Montreal seemingly never fail to deliver an album a year. They might well be of varying quality, admittedly, but it’d be a bit over optimistic to think such a constant stream of material would always yield fantastic results. Some might prefer Barnes had a more discerning filter, but even when his new work is on the shonky side, it’s never less than interesting.
Innocence Reaches is the band’s 14th album, and whilst most bands would be scraping the barrel and going through the motions at this point, Of Montreal are still finding ways to re-invent themselves and twist their identity with every release. Long time fans will not find this in the least bit surprising: Barnes is particularly adept at latching on to musical genres and mining them for gold. This can make for quite inconsistent and confusing albums with no central sound grounding them, but it’s this confusion and willingness to waltz through boundaries as if they aren’t there (and they really aren’t, are they?) that makes them such an exciting, if occasionally frustrating prospect.
There is plenty of evidence of Barnes’ debt to David Bowie (the repetitive funk rock stabbing of Les Chants De Maldoror is a prime example, as is Chaos Arpeggiating’s woozy disjointed rock exploration) and Prince all over Innocence Reaches, but this time he’s focused primarily on floor-filling EDM.
From the first bar of the album, Of Montreal head straight for the dancefloor and for gender issues. “How do you identify?” ask Barnes, instantly throwing his hat into the ring. His hat might be in there, but there’s no list of opinions or key points tucked in the band above the brim. “I want to be modified…are you something aliquot?” he states before adding “let’s relate”. It’s a serious subject but one that seems weirdly glossed over, never really connecting, beyond the evident joy and contentment to be found in the line “I like that you like you, I think that you’re great”. Thankfully it’s such a charged up and pumping dance track that any deeper meaning would be lost underneath Barnes’ keen vocal melodies and synth lines.
It’s Different For Girls pulls the exact same trick. The lead single from the album examines gender and sexist culture but does so in such wide brush strokes it ties itself in well-meaning knots. Whether the whole thing is an ironic statement on the debate that revolves around the construction of gender identity via language, semiotics and codification is anyone’s guess. If it is, it’s clumsily put together, but redeemed somewhat by Barnes’ effortless floor filling disco nous and the quite wonderful line “for every one psycho bitch there’s one thousand aggro pricks”. It’s hard to argue with that kind of sentiment.
After setting the EDM bar high early on, Barnes quickly sets about exploring other genres, which is hardly unheard of for Of Montreal, the project has always been something of a flighty genre butterfly. Gratuitous Abysses sees them heading back to Bowie and The Stooges for inspiration. A mass of spiky guitars and stabbing vocal lines, it’s nothing if not shot through with bug-eyed energy. Thankfully, it’s also crammed with some perfect vocal harmonies and hooks which sweeten the harsh guitar tones and bitter lyrical tone.
There’s a distinct darkness that hangs over the album, and it is present and disturbing on My Fair Lady’s, a song whose perfect poptoned chorus can’t quite mask the pain in its heart. Taking the disintegration of a relationship as a starting point for great music is hardly a new idea, but Barnes addresses it in such a direct manner, it is hard not to feel a knot in the stomach as he sings lines like “my lady’s back at home, cutting herself and sending me photographs”. Likewise, the beautiful harmonies and sudden move towards a dancefloor pulse cant hide the pain of “because you’ve been so damaged, I have to give all the love that was meant for you to somebody else”. Tragic and twisted doesn’t quite cover it.
The second half of the album slows the pace somewhat and perhaps suffers after the thundering EDM and lyrical onslaught of the first few songs. Nursing Slopes for example is far too lightweight to make much of an impression, and the detached electronic confusion of Trashed Exes fails to resonate or relate despite being curiously fascinating to an outsider. Yet, for the most part, Innocence Reaches is a triumph of adversity and experimentation.