Recent Of Montreal records have had only one thing in common: they’ve obfuscated Kevin Barnes’ end goal with his band’s music. Sure, it’s possible that this is the wrong way to look at the situation. Maybe there is no set destination, and each record is intended to function as a living and breathing recollection of feelings Barnes, at that specific point in time, wanted to capture. As time passes those feelings may very well change, and might even manifest themselves into embarrassment and regret. Ultimately the indie group’s 13th studio album continues this trend of aesthetic spontaneity, of vocalizing feelings that came damned close to being lost somewhere along the way.
It ends in piano hits and falsetto, and it begins with a bellowing guitar lead. There are few words that can be used to describe the sound of Aureate Gloom. It is enigmatic, both in terms of influence and of structure. Songs like “Bassem Sabry” hark back to the funk-emblazoned pomp that defined Of Montreal’s output in the late ’00s, and also focus on the sole directive of being as irresistibly danceable as possible. The rest of the record deals with other styles, though: some parts bring to mind the most celebrated rock artists of the ’70s, with fuzzy guitar riffs and simpler instrumentation, while others recall the frenetic fretwork of early prog-rock.
Whether it’s Electric Light Orchestra or Led Zeppelin from which the album culls influence, the album always feels stylistically familiar — at least, for those of us raised on such artists. It’s in the structure of Aureate Gloom where things get messier, considering there’s little rhyme or reason in the way it lurches from one sound to the next. “Empyrean Abbatoir” lacks a melodic focus throughout its various incarnations, caterwauling itself from breezy psychedelia to abrasive guitar-rock. The issue with the song isn’t that it defines itself by its indecisiveness, but rather that it comes across as fundamentally unrelatable. I can grow to understand these songs, and I’ve already found myself able to anticipate what comes next in them, but what’s the use if I don’t know the reasoning behind it?
Maybe this ambiguity is the point entirely. I’ll never know exactly why Aureate Gloom is the way it is, as much as I try. I can only hazard a guess from outside information, and in this case, a small bit of research has helped me a great deal. In Barnes’ interview with Stereogum in October of last year, he made it clear that he’d experienced monumental life changes before this album’s release, such as the separation between him and his wife of 11 years. The change led to Barnes looking for himself in the world again, foregoing his own comforts in order to reestablish his own identity in what he sees around him. And such a process leads to thoughts- so many thoughts — about everything and nothing, about every relationship that exists in a person’s life. It can sometimes seem that Aureate Gloom was written with no audience in mind. The music within it can function as a soliloquy to anyone willing to listen, but by no means does Of Montreal impress this purpose upon the listener.
Aureate Gloom can serve as an intense affirmation of the confusion that comes with change, of the uncertainty that comes with difficult choices. Of Montreal know this tune well — the group itself has adapted its sound to that of its environment countless times — but the shift Aureate Gloom suggests is of its creators. The album is a difficult listen because it is immeasurably honest, because it exposes a group who, after 13 releases in almost 20 years, sounds less seasoned than flat-out exhausted.