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Of Montreal’s “Innocence Reaches” Too High

| Thursday, September 1, 2016

banner- montreal webCristina Interiano

Kevin Barnes is ambitious, let’s give him that. The front man of indie-rock outfit of Montreal is going on 43, and over the course of 14 studio albums — and as many extended plays and live records — he has scarcely ever allowed the band to settle into anything like habit or normalcy. The band’s first few albums harken back to ‘60s psychedelic pop and Bowie’s charismatic art-rock, while the mid-2000s followed the bedazzled funk of Prince. Then followed an arc of three full-length albums that served as a continuation of the overwrought glamour made incarnate in Barnes’ purported alter-ego, the effervescent Georgie Fruit.

Seemingly exhausted of those albums’ baroque affect, Barnes opted on 2013’s album “Lousy with Sylvianbriar” for a more stripped-down, twangy sound reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s country-rock. That album marked a new, ongoing era of the band’s career that has been defined — for better or worse — by frequent stylistic shifts and unpredictable creative whims. In fact, it seems that drawing from an eclectic array of genres and styles for each new album is Barnes’ new modus operandi. On last year’s “Aureate Gloom,” for example, he drew heavily from the progressive rock tradition while still conserving the band’s telltale approach to dynamic, caffeinated songwriting. There was reason, thus, to be intrigued, if not excited, about of Montreal’s latest release, the full-length “Innocence Reaches”.

Even before listening to the album itself, however, the record’s cover art was an immediate red flag. I judged a book by its cover, but anyone well-acquainted with this band could tell you why an explosively colorful sleeve that features female anatomy in gratuitous detail is bad news coming from Barnes. The musician’s obsession with gender is not academic, romantic or even well-informed, as made evident on lead single “it’s different for girls.” The title is an omen for the lyricism itself: rather than expressing his positive fascination with women, Barnes’ comically rigid understanding of femininity is cringe-worthy if not creepy.

But that’s not the worst part. When the music itself is not insipid, it is abysmal. According to Barnes, the record draws from recent trends in electronic music in order to shape a more relevant and cutting-edge sound, but it is a mystery why he thought that emulating artists like Arca and Jack Ü — musicians with exceedingly different styles in their own right, mind you — would best help him accomplish this.

The opening track, “let’s relate”, seems to copy the uninspired dance music of Ibiza nightclubs, and features a vocal performance that is simply uncomfortable to boot. He commits most strongly to the aesthetic on “a sport and a pastime,” which borrows from grimy pop outfit Purity Ring, but the song feels clumsy; Barnes is simply unable to navigate the foreign sonic territory. The only electronic-based track that works well is “nursing slopes,” and this is precisely because the electronics complement — rather than shape and guide — the vocals and songwriting.

On one hand, it is admirable that Barnes is willing and able to push his music further beyond its comfort zone than ever before. However, but for this very same reason the album is a recipe for disaster. The project’s ambition is simply misguided; everything about Barnes’ vision is incompatible with his actual strengths as a musician. Perhaps it is possible to marry psychedelic indie rock, industrial bass music and trap, but to expect to carry out such a polygamous affair over the course of a single record — no less as a solo musician — is unrealistic if not egomaniacal. Usually I encourage innovation above artistic safety, but it’s become increasingly clear that Barnes needs to play to his strengths to craft a strong record.

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