On August 12 the ever shapeshifting band Of Montreal released their 14th album, Innocence Reaches. The new release follows quickly on the heels of their 2015 release “Aureate Gloom”, and is in definite contrast to that recording. Aureate Gloom was a straightforward expose’ on the struggles lead singer Kevin Barnes was facing as he attempted to gain equilibrium in his life after the break up of his 11 yr marriage. On “Innocence Reaches” Barnes is still as confessional as ever but has taken a step away from overt self revelation. He provides a whimsical juxtapostioning of quirkiness and serious socio-political themes which unspool over an extremely likable soundtrack.
Of Montreal has always been a movable feast with Kevin Barnes as the Master of Ceremonies. There have been constant changes in the line up since the band’s inception in 1996. The band grew out of the fertile musical epicenter of Athens, GA, REM’s legendary stomping ground. However Barnes and Co have always given the impression of being more related to the U.K. and psychedelic 60’s groups then the homegrown Southern Gothic environment that inspired REM. Along the path of the band’s existence they have dipped their toes in many genres; Experimental, Glam, Folk, Disco, Progressive, Alt Country and Punk and every degree and subset in between. Of Montreal was part of the Elephant 6 collective of bands in the 00’s that were retro obsessed and gave birth to performers like Neutral Milk Hotel, Elf Power and The Apples in Stereo. Of Montreal hit their popular stride in the oughts with albums like 2007’s “Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?” and 2008’s “Skeletal Lamping”. The band attained significant respect from their peers and a loyal legion of fans with their left of center tunes.
Unlike the last two releases Innocence Reaches is one of the most approachable albums Of Montreal has recorded. Barnes has said about the album that he had turned to current performers like Chairlift and Arca, and the genres of EDM and IDM for inspiration. He attempts on the release to combine low end production with those inspirations and produces sound collages, with numerous layers, dense beats and off kilter rhythms that reinforce the psychedelic sound for which the band is famous. Always the master of creating alter egos in his lyrics; he paradoxically still provides an unobstructed view directly into his wide eyed psyche.
On “Innocence Reaches “Barnes turns away from the obsession over his personal plus and minus columns. Out of the gate he jumps into the gender questions the have engaged society this year. Let’s Relate and It’s Different for Girls examines these questions. On “Let’s Relate” asks the loaded question “How do you identify” and on “It’s Different for Girls” rails against the pervasive thinking that women are “expected to sit and take some lesser man’s shit”. Barnes runs head first into some pretty divisive themes but each is brilliantly couched in a spacey mesmerizing sonic scape helping spur healthy debate. The two songs find Barnes at his most clever combining heavy topics with excellent dance floor grooves, making things accessible and cool. He is engaging in the long forgotten art of Camp to make some valid points.
One of my favorite tracks on the release is Gratuitous Abysses it grabs hold of the glam rock ethos and does not let go. The tune is a delicious combination of Bowie and Lou Reed in their glam era incarnations as screened through Barnes’ Day Glo bounce. The guitar riffs are fantastic and harken to songs such as Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz”. “Gratuitous Abysses” is a fun song even as it discusses darker lyrical fare.
My Fair Lady returns to topics addressed on Of Montreal’s “Aureate Gloom”, the pressures of the rock and roll life style on a relationship. Evinced is the pretzel logic of excusing one’s bad behavior because the other person is so damage that comfort has to be sought in the arms of others. The accompaniment features a combination of twangy guitar in the beginning and a disco flare in the second part that make it very enticing.
Other standouts on the release are the digital inflected A Sport and a Past Time which has a distinctive icy feel. The numerous layers make you sense you are amidst a musical blizzard, but contains lyrics that are sweet and make for an endearing love song. Def Pacts is another winning track that displays a more classic alternative rock feeling. The song has the sonic aura of The Shins, circa “Wincing the Night Away”. The oscillating tempo makes for a trippy effect that completely hooks you into the song, with excellent lyrics like “I’m really just looking for another reason to go off the rails” and “Someone else’s pain is never interesting.”
Chaos Arpeggiating ensnared me with its Robyn Hitchcock style lyrics and pacing, add in those Ziggy Stardust guitars wed to country flair and you have an absorbing song. On the track Barnes decries his own spinning from one thing to another never really deciding where or what he is doing. There are also noteworthy lyrics like “The loneliness is so distracting I almost don’t miss you at all.”
Among the songs at the end of the album is the surreal journey which is Nursing Slopes, which comes across as a calming lullaby and reaches back to The Talking Heads “Little Creatures” era. Initially the track Trashing Exes gives the impression of being a top forty effort but then twists into a quintessential Of Montreal creation. The listener can easily draw the conclusion that Barnes has not completely exercised the demons of his divorce. Supporting this take away are lyrics like “did you try and love me, it doesn’t sound like you”, revealing his lingering pain and animosity. The release ends with the energy laden “Chap Pilot” which is best described as an Avant Garde selection that shows how far out there Barnes is capable of going on a song.
Innocence Reaches is a welcome return to accessibility for Of Montreal. Underneath all the varied studio techniques Barnes still maintains a full grasp on classic pop songwriting which make each song attractive. The lightness of the music is aptly balanced with the frequent serious sociological topics that are examined. When Barnes is on point he offers a perfect balance of extremes, which for any artist takes true intestinal fortitude and skill. Of Montreal releases demand an open mind and an adventurous outlook but there is a great payoff with a brilliant unique music experience. Barnes is gifted with the ability to create entirely engaging worlds which all transpire within a song. If you have not availed yourself of this release make sure to catch it.