Kevin Barnes has found his center again. He's figured out how to combine his melodic skills with his musical idiosyncrasies.
After nearly a decade of pushing his music in wildly disparate directions, Kevin Barnes has achieved a sort of equilibrium on Innocence Reaches, Of Montreal’s 14th studio album. The restless, album-length experiments that characterized records like Skeletal Lamping, Paralytic Stalks, and even the more accessible Lousy With Sylvanbriar (Of Montreal as late ‘60s rock) and Aureate Gloom (Of Montreal as ‘70s hard rock) have fallen away. Instead, Innocence Reaches combines a lot of those elements (both musical and lyrical) with the basic sound from Barnes’ most high-profile era, the critically-acclaimed Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? and the ultra-catchy The Sunlandic Twins.
First single “It’s Different for Girls” is the most obvious throwback to that era. A head-bobbing, bouncy guitar riff complements a pair of sparkling synth lines to give the song the perfect mid-school (for Of Montreal, “old school” is the twee indie-pop of their early albums that Barnes now largely eschews) Of Montreal feel. Barnes’ vocals are lively and engaged and full of melody, and in the second verse Barnes throws in the layered, wordless backing harmonies that were so prevalent in the band’s music from that time.
“It’s Different for Girls” is so successful as musical comfort food that it’s easy to overlook Barnes’ ostensibly pro-women but still problematic lyrics. The empowering verses contain a lot of great lines like “From when they are children / They’re depersonalized / Aggressively objectified”, but the refrain has some uncomfortable generalities. “Though some women are demons / All of them are Gods” is awkward, even when it’s followed by “For every one psycho bitch / There’s 10,000 aggro pricks”. Barnes has always been interested in smashing gender norms, but even at his most supportive he still manages to throw in some lyrical side eye towards individual women with whom he’s had issues.
The harder-rocking songs on Innocence Reaches recall the most successful tracks of Sylvanbriar and Aureate Gloom, as Barnes doesn’t let the distorted guitar and classic rock trappings overwhelm his melody. The ‘70s glam of “Gratuitous Abysses” is a reminder that Barnes once spent a whole tour covering David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream.” There are a couple of muscular guitar riffs pushing the song, but the simple refrain of Barnes singing the words “Gratuitous Abysses” in two-part falsetto harmony is the real hook of the song. “Les Chants de Maldoror” starts off strong, with a great guitar lead that pulls back into a nice groove for the song’s verses. The song effectively ends around the three-minute mark when the original guitar lead roars back. But then that guitar solos for an interminable time before giving way to an acoustic guitar and layered, mostly incomprehensible talking from Barnes. Six minutes is twice as long as “Les Chants de Maldoror” needs to be.
More daring is “Chaos Arpeggiating”, which dresses its titular arpeggiated guitar riff in old west trappings including jingling spurs and pedal steel guitar. After introducing the riff, though, the song immediately shifts down in tempo and Barnes comes in singing, using his flat, disaffected speak-singing voice. Leaving the main riff so quickly when it’s so good is a bracing change. But it pays off as this second section ends in creepy, lingering guitar notes and leads into the song’s second great bit, a bass and low-end piano riff that chugs along into a de facto refrain that leads back to the original guitar riff. The song then follows this whole pattern a second time, but instead of leaping right back to the earworm guitar, Barnes cannily delays that gratification with an extended refrain that finally pays off with an extended outro featuring those sweet, sweet guitar arpeggios.
“My Fair Lady” and “Def Pacts” are reminders of Barnes at his most musically depressed. The former has a late-night, low-key funk feel characterized by a constantly moving bassline and background synth and flute flourishes. You know you’re in for a bad time when Barnes brings out that flat affect and opens the song bemoaning “My lady’s back at home / Cutting herself and / Sending me photographs.” “My Fair Lady” is rescued by its sprightly chorus, which brings in a disco beat and layered harmonies and finds Barnes hardening his resolve: “Because you’ve been so damaged / I have to give all the love that was meant for you to / Somebody else.” The song ends after a refrain with a full-on early ‘80s jam that even brings in a wailing saxophone. “Def Pacts” contrasts a chaotic, stream of consciousness verse section with a slow moving, lush chorus that’s very pretty. But the lack of a strong hook makes Barnes’ complaining much more prominent. At one point he admits, “I know someone else’s pain / Is never interesting”, which isn’t exactly true, but it fits in this case.
“Trashed Exes” may be the most experimental track on the album, but it works because of Barnes’ commitment to a strong melody. It opens with about four different synth lines going at once, including a percussion track that bounces around, using what seems like a half-dozen random percussion sounds. The music gets ever more skeletal and weird as the song progresses. But it’s easy for the listener to go with it since it’s all anchored on top by the melodic vocals and a clear lyrical premise. “You, you were just slumming it with me / You faked it, I was your slum.” This is not new lyrical territory for Barnes, but that familiarity helps as the music gets so bizarre.
Barnes’ tendency towards heart on his sleeve lyrics and musical peripatetic nature has made Of Montreal a challenging band to follow lately. Innocence Reaches feels like Barnes has found his center again. This time out he’s figured out how to combine his melodic skills with his musical idiosyncrasies in a way that works, for the most part, really well. It’s nice to be able to look forward to listening to an Of Montreal album again.