Until now Of Montreal’s universe kept getting bigger from album to album. While they started on their 1997 debut Cherry Peel as a one-person band, a bedroom project for songwriter Kevin Barnes, each release has seen them grow, first into a genuine band and then from there into a theatrical rock-pop extravanganza. Their next three full-length albums—1998’s The Bedside Drama: a Petite Tragedy, 1999’s The Gay Parade and 2001’s Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse—were full-blown story-albums, with unique characters, situations and tales. Each mixed 1960-ish pop-rock and intimate expressions of feeling with the dramatic scope of Broadway musicals and the out-there creativity of the weirdest children’s storybooks. And each was bigger in scope than the last, leading up to the epic Coquelicot, which gave listeners more bizarre stories and people than you would imagine could fit in one album.
It’d be hard to imagine Of Montreal being able to follow that trend to another album, to make their sound and stories bigger than on Coquelicot. So with their new album Aldhill’s Arboretum they’ve gone in the opposite direction by making everything more compact. In essence this is their first real rock album, filled with compact songs bursting with energy. To match that songwriting style, the band has adopted a tougher, fuller sound, with a thicker sound from the rhythm section. The songs are distinctly theirs, with the same mix of Tin Pan Alley pop and Elephant 6-style rock, but they have a power that makes them sound more rock. They often sound like late-period Beatles if they were a little more interested in show tunes, or some of the Nuggets bands if they played more piano ballads about strolling in the park on a Sunday.
Of Montreal’s world is one of extreme imagination but also one focused on the inner lives of people, on how they think of themselves and relate to each other. There’s both surrealism and emotional openness in Barnes’ songs. He writes love songs, “have you ever thought about . . . ?” songs and observational songs with the creativity of a Dr. Seuss and the emotional bareness of that folk song or soul ballad that always makes you cry. On Aldhills Arboretum, he has compacted everything without losing any of those qualities. There’s still people floating through the songs, and they’re still feeling lonely, looking for love, reminiscing and taking up hobbies to pass the time. There’s Auntie Eleanor and her unhappy husband, the longlost cousin “Jennifer Louise”, the eternally sad, “Predictably Sulking Sara”, Emily Foreman, a girl who might be real and might be make-believe, Natalie, who finally found a true friend by buying a Yorkshire Terrier, and more. These could be people Barnes knows or people he made up, who knows. But they live in song, embodying feelings that all of us have.
Though the album is bouncy and optimistic-sounding, loneliness is the shadow hanging over much of it. Barnes kicks off the album singing more roughly than usual over one’s of the band’s most rocking songs ever (“Doing Nothing”), adding rage to a melodic tune about people whose lives are frozen, who are sick of doing nothing, who wander through the park thinking about “all the lonely ways to die.” There’s also a song where he reflects on how hard it must for old people to visit the graves of their friends, knowing that they too will die soon (“Old People in the Cemetery”), one about how life is best when you’re asleep and therefore will be even better when you die and can sleep all of the time (“An Ode to the Nocturnal Muse”), and several about unhappy people looking for something or someone to make life better.
Yet what can’t be overlooked about Aldhills Arboretum is the way that sadness is viewed in a natural way, as something omnipresent in life. Of Montreal are the last band you could describe as gloomy or depressing. They approach even the subjects of loneliness and death with a certain cheerfulness and creativity that are infectious. “Pancakes for One” is the perfect example. A song about how depressing it is to have no one to share your life with should be one of the saddest songs ever. Yet the way Barnes writes about the subject, by thinking about how eating pancakes is more fun when you have someone to eat them with, and the snappy way the band plays the song as both funky and pretty make it silly and sad. In that way, Of Montreal’s songs feel at the same time like real life and like a fantasy world. With Aldhills Arboretum they achieve that balance as well as they ever have, by offering stories that could be from your life but telling them like they’re oddball works of fiction.