He Can Do It Softcore If You Like
Last year was pretty much the coming out party for Kevin Barnes, as exuberant an indie musician as there is, finally getting his due. In January of that year, his band—Of Montreal—wound up dropping Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, a monumental disc that was a mess of contradictions. The music was all schizophrenic digi-pop placed in a blender and given a good share of ADHD to boot. The lyrics, however, were more “Idiot Wind” than “Whoomp! There It Is”. Suffering from his recent divorce (which has since been reconciled), Barnes dropped the character studies that doted the numerous Of Montreal records beforehand, instead focusing on his most fascinating character to date: himself. The result was danceable and sad, exciting and desperate all at once. Needless to say, few people sounded like Kevin Barnes in 2007.
On the fabulous Icons, Abstract Thee EP that was released months after Fauna first began picking up press, Barnes quietly dropped a pop masterwork called “No Conclusions”, rife with string sections, backbeats, and deceptively simple lyrics like “I’m allergic to the world when we’re separated” and “I’m killing myself / But it’s not suicide”. Clocking in at nine minutes, it was an epic musical conclusion to what was a spectacular year for Barnes, who, through these releases, went from underground cult icon to indie superstar. With his visibility (and commercial prospects) grander than ever, many were wondering what exactly Barnes would be doing for a follow-up act, and rumors of Barnes referring to his follow-up disc as his “Prince” album piqued an uncustomary amount of delicious curiosity.
Yet from the get-go, Skeletal Lamping has a different air about it; it’s an album that’s made of party-ready beats, and it feels like it’s going to be a good/self-deprecating time, but lyrically Barnes can never settle on one theme. He poses queries about how the world is slowly affecting his sexuality, all while writing tender ballads of commitment and then partying. Yes, “schizophrenic” is an adjective that works well for Of Montreal as of late, but notice how it’s only used when describing his music. When it’s used to describe his conceptual bent, you know you’re in for something unexpected, and, perhaps just once, not altogether satisfying.
A simple, addictive harpsichord melody opens the disc, and it’s not long before “Nonpareil of Favor” is filled with standard Of Montreal trademarks: rubbery basslines and drum kicks, turning into a backwards-warped country ballad halfway through, finally transforming into a single-note guitar bashing riff fest that’s more noise than joy (Mark E. Smith would be proud), seemingly endless but never once feeling directionless. No, this isn’t the king of song that’s going to get any radio play, but that’s not the point. The point is that Skeletal Lamping is Barnes’ ode to his new life and marriage, the very first words we hear on the disc even being “My lover”, a phrase that implies togetherness and unity, an aspect that was cathartically absent from Hissing Fauna.
The contradictory notions of love that populate this album are best expressed on the raw disco-by-way-of-“Alphabet Street” funk of “Gallery Piece”, in which Barnes lays his abstract desires bare:
I want to be your love
I want to make you cry
And sweep you off your feet
I want to hurt your pride
I want to slap your face
I want to paint your nails
I want to make you scream
I want to braid your hair
I want to kiss your friends
I want to make you laugh
I want to dress the same
I want to defend you
In the end, he concludes that he just wants to be his lover’s only friend, though friendship by itself is not enough. “For Our Elegant Caste” opens with Barnes chanting “We can do it softcore if you want / But you should know I take it both ways / We can do it softcore if you want / But you should know that I go both ways”. This is immediately followed by a lonely, sad piano coda called “Touched Something’s Hollow”, in which Barnes laments that he doesn’t know how long he can hold on, immediately placing doubt on the future of his relationship with his softcore-loving partner. Even stranger is on “Wicked Wisdom” when, during a breakdown, Barnes simply states “I’m just a black she-male / And I don’t know what you people are all about”, a total non-sequitur that’s made all the stranger by being placed right in the middle of a song where it feels like Barnes is trying to perform the entire Scissor Sisters catalog in under three minutes. For someone who set his own slide into depression amidst catchy hook after catchy hook beforehand, we are now wondering what the hell Barnes is talking about.
Though his message is somewhat contradictory, there are still isolated moments of unbridled pop joy. “Beware Our Nubile Miscreants” is the kind of Bowie-aping disco pop number that we all knew Barnes always had in him. Here he is chastising his lover for eyeing some piece of man-candy that is all looks and no substance, all while Barnes omniscient narrator provides juicy, hilarious details to this man’s life, including cooking up crystal meth while Barnes’ lover is mourning a death, and, surprisingly, leaving a moment of desperation to go play Halo in another room, all while Barnes begins piling on tense string sections during its final moments, making for a song that’s as instantly satisfying as it is fantastically surprising.
Yet the undeniable highlight is “Plastis Wafers”, one of the most openly sexual songs to ever be recorded under the Of Montreal moniker, a seven-minute epic that careens wildly between ‘70s keyboard cool and hard rock guitars, almost as if Barnes’ wants to cram the entire history of dance floor trends into one reverb-drenched anthem. It is here that we’re hearing Barnes genuinely have fun, and, more crucially, focusing on a single subject, thereby making its message much easier to digest, unlike the bluesy “Women’s Studies Victims”, in which phrases like “ellict pentagram”, “Chinese stars”, and becoming a cheating mannequin are all tossed out without any rhyme or reason, as if by throwing this confetti of nonsense against a canvas, at least one idea will stick—and, sadly, none of them do.
At the end of the day, Skeletal Lamping is a strange, utterly perplexing album that lacks the dire focus of Hissing Fauna, a tragic oversight given just how much fun Skeletal Lamping is most of the time, especially given its many classic-rock affectations (the overlying Prince theme, the ‘60s acoustic folk breakdown in “Death is Not a Parallel Move”, the very Rolling Stones-inspired “And I’ve Seen a Bloody Shadow”). Following a dramatic statement of purpose like Hissing Fauna, it shouldn’t be too surprising that listening to Skeletal Lamping is a bit of a let-down, but, when removed of comparisons and expectations, it’s still a nonsensical dancefloor freakfest that only Kevin Barnes could pull off—and, really, what more could you ask of Kevin Barnes?
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