Even as an ancillary member of Athens, Georgia’s psych-pop outfit Elephant Six (home to Neutral Milk Hotel, Apples in Stereo, Circulatory System, et al) Kevin Barnes and his of Montreal troupe often stood out as “the weird ones”. What began as a piano-based folk-pop project that turned out heavily narrative-driven musings on gay life, bored marriages, middle management immobility, and whatever was going on in the imaginary universe of Coquelicot has (mostly) organically evolved into the most unexpected of things: a funk outfit. What began as an artistic rebirth on Hissing Fauna, in which Barnes took the dance-oriented synths of Sunlandic Twins and Satanic Panic to their most conceptual as he slowly transformed into the drag queen Georgie Fruit in order to cope with his depression and divorce, has now come to encompass everything about the band. And while Barnes claims the Fruit persona has been cast aside for this release, it’s often difficult to notice.
False Priest presents itself as a highly impenetrable album because of Barnes’ word choice. Where Skeletal Lamping was an album so ramshackle musically that certain sects claimed the album was intended to be played backward, False Priest flips the conceit the other direction and creates an awesomely dense lyrical journey. Not that the music is any less dramatic or afflicted by an extreme desire to impress. “Coquette Coquette” runs itself through three or four distinct movements, all slightly related, but like Skeletal Lamping, feeling more like a few different ideas mashed together. Many of the songs, particularly “Our Righteous Defects” and “Girl Named Hello”, feature extended musical codas that sometimes lead into the next track, sometimes serve as nothing more than extra time on the CD. “Our Righteous Defects” should be a welcome surprise to long-time listeners, by the way, as Barnes revives his spoken word style from the Gay Parade days for a little relationship interplay with R&B savior(?) Janelle Monae before allowing her a spaced out solo. Monae returns again more prominently for “Enemy Gene”, one of the album’s first great moments. Not surprisingly, it’s also one of the few songs in which Barnes finds an adorable melody and prefers to stick with it, rather than twist it multiple times for fun.
Songs like “Godly Intersex” and “Casualty of You” are held back by ambition and genius, two traits that are just as dangerous as it is exquisite when the well begins to run dry. “Godly Intersex” has a sneakily catchy chorus that will go from annoying to swell quick, as Barnes often does, but the rest of the song is thrown through a gauntlet of noise that actually makes it harder to listen to the nicer your sound system gets. “Casualty of You”, meanwhile, witnesses Barnes falling into a trap all too many artists have found themselves in lately: the allure of mimicking the Purple One. In the pop world, only The-Dream has really managed this ambition successfully, in part because he realizes he could never sing like Prince and thus must go for style points instead. Barnes hunts those, with the synths and organs of “Enemy Gene” and the kinky nature of “Feel Ya’ Strutter”, “Like a Tourist” and “Sex Karma” (featuring Beyoncé‘s sister Solange), and does assimilate them into the of Montreal template effectively.
But when he chases that classic upper register, such as on “Casualty of You” or “Like a Tourist”, frustratingly shaky vocal turns are par for the course. Barnes also finds himself using a flatter, more monotone delivery on tracks like “Enemy Gene”, “Hydra Fancies” and album standout “Famine Affair” (which feels like a thinly veiled Dinosaur Jr. tribute of all things). This voice provides many of the most pleasant, affecting vocals on the album, and while his basic tenor is still appreciated, I wouldn’t mind much more of this in the future. His voice cracks appropriately and feels much more in sync with the backing music. And from a personal standpoint, I would just rather he try to do himself rather than crank out the naked Purple adoration that encompasses about half the tracks here. False Priest carries strong ambitions towards being something of a synth-funk album, but it’s often the actual of Montreal moments that ring most authentic.
False Priest is certainly a notable step-up from Skeletal Lamping, the release where Barnes lost me as a fan. False Priest doesn’t do enough to reel folks like me back into the hype machine, mainly because the lyrics are simply too dense and abstract to enjoy in this setting. I wish Barnes would realize his genius was not in massive amalgamations of ‘80s culture, but in small moments such as Jacques Lamure’s unrequited love for a co-worker. At this point, it’s hard to say Barnes is no longer a genius, but it’s easy to say his genius lies almost entirely in arrangement and melody these days. Whether it’s old fans or folks who’ve never heard his work before (though definitely more so with the latter), I’ve struggled over the past few weeks to find anyone willing to listen to this disc’s entire run-time because of the lyrical style. Much of that is owed to their abrasive style, which doesn’t become endearing like the music does after a dozen or so listens. The lyrics, unfortunately, remain impassable to all but the most dedicated Barnes heads.
“You Do Mutilate?”, the album closer, is definitely the biggest head-scratcher on an album full of them, though. The song bursts out of the gate quite annoyingly before settling into a fairly mediocre groove and masking Barnes’ voice in robot effects as he monologues about the dangers of religious belief, government and other political topics. It’s a moment obviously intended to summarize what False Priest has been all about—the importance of human friendship and companionship—but instead comes off a pandering and needlessly confrontational. Not to mention most listeners—including myself—will only pick up on all the sex, and thus be confused when this robot enters stage left. Which, in a sense, is a secondary summary of False Priest, an album filled with great ideas, but often too excited to make them fully coherent and palatable.