Kevin Barnes, the master of ceremonies for the ever shape-shifting band Of Montreal, has never shirked from camp and cogent observations. Once again with his latest release, “UR Fun” Barnes orchestrates a celebration of musical enthusiasm and apt social commentary. “UR Fun” follows up 2018’s release “White is Relic/Irrealis Mood” by diving into the deep end of 80’s retro sonics. Like the title and album cover, the release is rife with 80’s motifs. Barnes has stated his inspiration for his latest outing came from iconic 80’s albums such as Cindy Lauper’s “She’s So Unusual” and Janet Jackson’s “Control”. Barnes says of the album that he was looking to create an LP filled with singles, and throughout the 10 tracks, he frequently succeeds. “UR Fun” also continues Barnes’ autobiographical trend as he seems unafraid to stripe himself of his prior fey stage persona that he has indulged in since the band’s inception in 1996.
Barnes recorded “UR Fun” in his home studio in legendary Athens, GA, better known as the hometown of REM. On this outing, Barnes recorded the release almost completely without collaborators. He isolated himself in his studio in a kind of “creative hibernation” working with synths, drums machines, computers, melodic baselines and glam guitars. He found himself logging in 12 hours work days obsessing over the songs. The outcome was 10 tracks that show he is the master of the inherent contradiction.
The songs on the surface seem to be light and airy dance-pop but on closer inspection are loaded with often personal, deep multidimensional themes and lyrics. The catalyst for the personal content is Barnes revelling in his relationship with songwriter Christina Schnieder of Location S-1. Where on “White is Relic” Barnes broke forth with a story about falling in love, “UR Fun” is the story about staying in love making for an engaging contrast.
The album begins with “Peace to Freaks” an ebullient protest song against totalitarianism wastefulness and familial terrorism, which sounds heavy but is, in reality, a refreshing dose of rationality with Barnes expressing his love for the oppressed and meek. The chorus is pure encouragement as he tells the listener to rise above the small-minded, “ Hush, hush, don’t let’s be cynical, don’t let’s be bitter if you feel like you can’t do it for yourself, then do it for us.” This bright track is akin to jumping into a John Hughes soundtrack, as the listener time travels back to the ’80s.
“Polyaneurism” has a punchy rock feeling and is an inspired meditation on the ups and downs of unconventional relationships. In the song Barnes makes the observation, “Playing musical lovers is starting to feel kind of kitsch” and he questions “…if you want monogamy or are you just like some basic bitch.” This song represents what Barnes does best, delivering pop goodness yet allowing the lingering impact of his observations to do their work. Another stand out track is “Getting God’s Attention by Being an Atheist” which centres on the idea of taking pleasure in childlike destruction and reckless joy seeking while playing on the narrative of “The Prodigal Son”. The sonics feature a buzzsaw bassline and is loaded with Technicolor adrenalin. Other tracks like “Gypsy that Remains” and “You Had Me Everywhere” highlight the wonder of love with “Gypsy” coming off as a Sufjan Stevens meets Scritti Politti wonder that lingers in the listener’s mind.
“Don’t Let Me Die in America” harkens to Devo with its catchy title and brings to life all the ennui of living in the suburbs and flyover areas. The snark of the lyric “I don’t even want to haunt this place” lands a hell of a punch making for a winning track. “Don’t Let Me Die in America” along with “Deliberate Self Harm Ha Ha” and the closing track “20th Century Schizofriendic Revengoid Man” are windows into the human psyche and where we find our society two decades into the 21st century. “Deliberate Self Harm…” uses a driving bass line, some would think borrowed from Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” to examine how fame is an illusionary temptation that ultimately betrays those who chase it.
The selection also discusses how we doubt ourselves and our senses with the apt lyric “I’m so quick to correct myself even when I am right”. The final track is a frenetic punk fest which examines how “fake” is a new reality as Barnes drolly sings the lyric, “I can’t go to work today, I forgot how to human”. A feeling all too many of us share. Barnes finishes strongly with the final triad of tracks and is unrelenting in his clear-eyed takes on our current human condition. His cleverness is manifest in layering the sonics with sugar so the medicine of his observations goes along down.
“UR Fun” is an engaging release that displays Kevin Barnes as one of the best sonic wordsmiths of our era. What makes the release so enticing is its ability to be so multi-dimensional, the listener can ride on the surface with the sonics that are everything the ’80s were about or go deeper into the themes and apt observations he makes and ponder their implications. Barnes never forgets to remain charming and fun and it shows in spades throughout the release. Either way, Kevin Barnes adds yet another brilliant addition to Of Montreal’s kaleidoscope discography.