Since 1997, Kevin Barnes has been re-creating his own little Pepperland in Athens, GA. With a little help from his friends of course. In the Kevin Barnes scheme of things, the Beach Boys’ Smiley Smile album, the Beatles’ “Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields” 45, the Kinks’ The Village Green Preservation Society album and Syd Barrett’s spaced-out excursions with Pink Floyd—notably on the “See Emily Play” 45 and The Piper at the Gates of Dawn LP—are foundations upon which Barnes and friends construct edible candy-filled cottages, you know, the kind that snared little Hansel and Gretel.
This unique musical methodology has resulted in some of the most intriguing work the indie-pop scene has witnessed. The debut Cherry Peel is an utter delight, a brash paean to down-to-earth innocence. Its proper follow-up, Bedside Drama: The Petite Tragedy developed further Barnes’ penchant for theatrical, psychedelic, music-hall inflected pop. Which led to The Gay Parade, a concept album of dizzying ambition where the music is at once grandiose and flamboyant. Last year’s Horse and Elephant Eatery (No Elephants Allowed) provided a sumptuous feast of singles and “songles” (i.e. tracks featured in non-album formats), bringing the Of Montreal tale full circle.
Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies is the much-anticipated new Of Montreal album and, at first tasting, lives up to the high standards set by its predecessor and more. Whimsical and ornate, the 22 songs here represent an ambitious song cycle full of surprising twists and turns. It ostensibly narrates the outlandish tale of Coquelicot’s adventures in dreamland; there is a child-like innocence to the music and yet a definitely matured thinking behind its very conceptualisation. Not content with blending into the background of indie pop, Barnes and company—viz. Derek Almstead (bass), Dottie Alexander (keyboards), Jamey Huggins (drums) and A.C. Forrester (assorted instruments)—challenge sensibilities and better judgement with distinctive material that warrants deeper examination.
In fact, such is the depth of textural content in these songs that it is impossible to do otherwise. “Let’s Do Everything for the First Time” is a prime example. It commences with a lone guitar and background sleigh bells with Barnes affecting his best Ray Davies impression. A slightly atonal verse leads up to a highly melodic chorus reminiscent of XTC’s Dukes of Stratosphear incarnation. In a similarly fanciful vein are the terminally jaunty McCartneyesque “Rose Robert”; the string-laden, placid “It’s a Very Starry Night”; the offbeat, vaudevillian “Mimi Merlot”; the charmingly complex “Butterscotching Mr Lynn”; the Barrett-evoking “Penelope”; and the beautiful Wilsonesque ballad “It’s Just So”.
Layering his idiosyncratic songs with elements of classical, jazz, Broadway and Disney movie scores, Barnes elevates Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies into the pantheon of seminal new pop masterpieces that test our very concepts of what modern pop should sound like. Eminently entertaining and thoroughly thought-provoking, this is an album to be savored as a complete entity from start to finish. No serious follower of artistic pop music can reasonably ignore this momentous release.