From the relentlessly energetic opener of “Suffer for Fashion”, the latest offering from the prolific genius of Kevin Barnes is set to be a profound experience. In the past, Mr. Barnes’s impeccable melodies and arrangements of retro-pop infused with tasteful doses of psychedelia have been admirably precise and never short of impressive. Nevertheless, even at their most breath-taking, these tunes have always seemed delightful novelties. Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? immediately changes all of that. This is a cohesive, serious album. It is distressing, depressed, isolated, alienating, and probably the best Of Montreal album to date.
The album opens with a manic rush to prove all that has been learned up to this point about song-craft. Guitars are augmented by alternately swishing and blipping synthesizers, bass trades off with lower riffing synths, programmed drums race, and Barnes restlessly yelps above it all. The melodies are as sweet as ever, but Barnes’s refrains of “together” and “forever” have more in common with Elvis Costello than Brian Wilson. The song is similar to Costello’s “Hand in Hand”, which featured the menacing assurance “If I’m gonna go down, you’re gonna come with me”. Barnes is not doing well, but it is hard to resist his call to “all melt down together”. And so begins the trajectory into meltdown and, we hope, back out again.
While “Suffer for Fashion” may bear some resemblance to Costello, the comparison is not entirely fair. Where Costello’s brilliant melodies are often sabotaged by his cynicism, Barnes seems powerless to express his inner self in any other terms. Textually, he is dealing with crisis upon crisis, but these are inevitably framed in dulcet hooks. In the tense intro to “Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse”, he begs, “mood shift, shift back to good again”, only to be immediately answered by his arsenal of good mood instruments. On command, the song shifts into a sunny lament. But there’s a troubling emergent vibe that first surfaces here. Barnes sings this song to “chemicals”, pleading that they not mess up his good times. And so the mood shift is not always pleasant. Sometimes it is a self-medicated escape, untrustworthy in that it’s basically a false front. So what about these delightful tunes? What are they? Where do they fit? Barnes is very aware of his catharsis and hence begins to doubt its authenticity. If the beleaguered protagonist is trapped in his melodies, we listeners become complicit in our enjoyment. Things get progressively complicated, and distressing undertones lurk in every pop gem.
All of this boils over perfectly around the mid-way point of the album. “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal” deploys a vague reminisce of the opening tones of A Clockwork Orange giving way to sinister, propulsive bass and drums. Guitars and synthesizers are piled on, but they shriek and clatter and clutter about in a dense chaos. Barnes’s vocals are flat and cynical, and his use of repetition creates uncomfortable tension in lines like “things could be different, but they’re not”. The repetition is enhanced by the driving two-note bass line which remains unaltered and, as the track approaches 12 minutes, becomes truly harrowing. Yet it is unavoidable. At this point in the album, we must pay for our voyeurism in the most leering confrontational manner. Barnes is finally breaking down in form and content, and it is devastating. At one point he half shouts “We want our film to be beautiful, not realistic”, as though to indict his listeners’ appreciation and moreover his own proclivity towards pleasant-sounding stories.
And as author and audience are trying to stomach all these dilemmas, or come to terms with all that has been bluntly stated, another cheery melody bubbles out of the haze of digital noise. Thank goodness for respite. All may be far from okay, and yet this vicarious therapy begs a glimmer of hope or at least relief. “Bunny Ain’t No Kind of Rider” blithely apologizes to “some faggy girl” who can never be with Barnes for her lack of “soul power”. This hints at the threat/promise of infidelity, but in comical terms. It is followed by two Prince-inspired dance tunes that slink with an effortless funkiness that Barnes has heretofore never fully mastered. “Faberge Falls for Shuggie” and “Labyrinthian Pomp” are both playful and tasteful. While they make for excellent booty-shaking material, eccentric vocal jabs and stuttering rhythms keep them appropriately off-kilter.
The disc could end on a brash high note with “She’s a Rejecter”, which struts a reverberating guitar alongside most potent drums. The song is exceptionally punchy, and Barnes sounds melodious but understandably hardened. The breaks and fore-grounded guitar briefly call the Flaming Lips to mind, but Barnes is more restless and bitter than that band. And can’t that guitar just swagger away through the track’s extended fade-out. But sustained synthesizer bleeds seamlessly into the delicate epilogue of “We Were Born the Mutants Again with Leafling”, which, with loping bass and synthesizers, calls to mind older songs or the more positive first half of the album. It appears a calming summation, a tender reassurance that the problems have been worked through and, just as we always suspected it would, the music has triumphed in the face of adversity.
And then Barnes starts singing. He rambles through confused imagery, sounding resigned to anxious contemplation. He is far from refreshed. Towards the end he chimes, “Sometimes we’re not legible, but we’re the same strange animals”. This is as close as we get to resolution. Can we help but feel invested at this point? We’re really pulling for Barnes, we want only the best for him, but after all, we know it cannot be the same. The breakdown was/is real, and the profundity of the record is in our experience and understanding of this. An easier record may have been a delightful holding pattern, but Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? struggles for sincerity and resonant payoffs and asks the same of its listeners. Kevin Barnes is altogether refreshing in his ultimate insistence upon the importance of pop music.