No matter their flashes of brilliance or their well-deserved position in indie music, Of Montreal have always been something of an acquired taste for many. Maybe it was the overall feeling of quirk that permeated much of their output in the past, the sort of slant that also once separated bands like They Might Be Giants from the herd. Of course the comparison isn’t really just, as Of Montreal always had a deeper sense of melancholy, no matter how breezy, funny or abstract the lyrics which considering their name (a moniker intent on honouring the hometown of a former lover of band leader Kevin Barnes) might be expected.
That sense of loss is what made them special, as throughout their consistent line-up changes the music has skirted between balances of despair, joy, love and heartbreak—and thankfully this mix remains largely intact on the 14-song Satanic Panic in the Attic, albeit if anything delivered in a much more focused, streamlined manner. It is in fact a release that comes with the warning, “If this sounds like a group of friends drunk and shouting, well, that’s what it is.” Having said that, though, the pathos that has often been Barnes’ MO is still evident. It’s there when he sings, “I get sad love / While falling for the ones who feel nothing for me / Sometimes I feel I should just forget / About love” in “Eros’ Entropic Tundra”, a title among many steeped in his oft-explored psychedelic lyrical style. The sombre lyrical tone continues in “City Bird”, a McCartney-channelled song about a feathery urban animal that in the past might have come across as dopey and humorous, though somehow now sounds affecting and strangely poignant. Barnes’ Beatlesque melodic turns pop up elsewhere, most notably in “Climb the Ladder”, a song that nearly envelops his ever-improving vocals with a flowery and exciting bed of instrumentation.
To paint this release as some sort of downer would be ridiculous, though, as from the onset it is evident this is the sound of a songwriter and band hitting on all joyous cylinders. Joined now by his wife, Barnes’s material has rarely sounded as dizzy with energy as it does on this their first release for Polyvinyl (the band released two albums for Bar/None and three for Kindercore). Coupled with the aforementioned touches of self-exploration, the initial push of the album, from inspired new wave-induced opener and lead-off single “Disconnect the Dots” on, feels fresh and exuberant. The single, led by a bouncy (dare I say danceable) beat and overlaps of synth and keyboards and some wonderfully catchy vocals, is probably the best song Belle and Sebastian never wrote, and one that sets a standard followed through much of the album, with mostly great results.
“Lysergic Bliss”, for example, might be one of the best and most inventive pop songs Barnes’ has ever written, and following directly after “Disconnect the Dots”, you start to think you’re in the presence of genius. I say this only because it isn’t often a sunny pop number is interrupted to hear a woman whisper encouragingly, “Ok gentlemen remember your breathing, 1, 2, 3, 4…” before an array of Barnes overdub vocals blend into a choral display that sounds like something from the Queen songbook. That this leads into a full-on lounge instrumental break. Complete with afro beat percussion, though, takes it into another realm all together.
“My British Tour Diary” is another highlight, as riding an instantly memorable vocal melody; Barnes captures a sort of demented Brian Wilson feel (this though I realize calling Wilson demented isn’t much of a stretch).
Here, with lines like, “Left alone to drive ourselves on the opposite side / Man it was a miracle that nobody died”, Barnes cuts away some of the lyrical abstraction and gives us an almost literal tourist diary… though one far removed from the boredom of a tattered notebook and forced slideshow.
Considering that the album starts so strongly, you would expect the inventor’s imagination to drift by record’s end. That it remains consistently high, however, shows off Barnes’s form.
“Chrissie Kiss the Corpse” is a case in point, an off-the-wall and equally contagious narrative delivered at a breakneck speed. For lesser bands, a song this catchy and inventive might lead off an album; here it comes up ninth in line.
The aptly titled “Spike the Senses” is another late gem, as Barnes borrows liberally from just about every ‘60s psychedelic pop song and crams it into one, hallucinatory gobbledegook lyrics and all.
Taken as a whole then, and with very few weaknesses to point out, Satanic Panic in the Attic might be the best thing this ever-changing band has released since the groundbreaking The Gay Parade. Sounding confident and pleased with itself, this is a release bound to satisfy the devotees, and maybe even recruit a few more.