Of Montreal Brings the Groove to 'White Is Relic / Irrealis Mood'
Kevin Barnes is back to experimenting. But this time around he drapes the weirdness in a layer of danceable grooves.
White Is Relic / Irrealis Mood
9 March 2018
After three studio albums recorded largely with a live band, Kevin Barnes is back to working mostly alone on White is Relic / Irrealis Mood, Of Montreal's 15th album. While that fact alone doesn't indicate anything about the quality level of the record, it is usually an indication that Barnes will be stretching the track length and experimenting more. Both of those things are the case here. There are six songs here, all over five minutes in length, and two of them crest the eight-minute mark. Fortunately for Of Montreal fans, there's nothing here as off-putting as 2012's deeply strange, occasionally atonal Paralytic Stalks. On the other hand, White Is Relic / Irrealis Mood is mostly devoid of the throwback catchiness that made 2016's Innocence Reaches so charming.
Like the album title itself, each track on White Is Relic / Irrealis Mood has a split title. Sometimes that split is literally reflected in the song itself, with a second part only tangentially related to the first. Other times it's more of a mood thing. In the press release for the album, Barnes says he was partially inspired by the extended dance mixes of '80s pop hits. That's generally a positive for these songs, because they stay mostly upbeat no matter how navel-gazing Barnes' lyrics get. Barnes also cites the opposing influences of falling in LOVE (the all caps is from him) and becoming "Simulated Reality" paranoid. The latter idea made the mainstream news in mid-2016 when tech giant Elon Musk claimed he believed the chances of humanity living in baseline reality were "a billion to one".
So, Barnes was falling deeply in love and getting deeply paranoid about the nature of reality, simultaneously. For a lot of artists this would result in a chaotic mess of an album. But for the past decade or so Of Montreal has essentially been the musical equivalent of bipolar disorder, with the music and lyrics running the gamut from ecstatic to destructive to angry to depressed to celebratory to paranoid. Barnes can be a fantastically engaging songwriter but listening to Of Montreal albums is often an emotional roller coaster.
Which brings us back to this album. There are two standout songs here. "Sophie Calle Private Game – Every Person Is a Pussy, Every Pussy Is a Star" explicitly mentions the love and paranoia over a mid-tempo bed of funky popped bass and shining synths. Not to mention the welcome saxophone section. This is a song that combines the best of '80s pop and Barnes' melodic sensibilities. There are some great, weird vocal harmonies as Barnes lyrically sorts through his feelings of affection and paranoia for his new love interest. The transition between parts happens right after Barnes sings "Have to protect from the ways of evil / Since I love you / Every time you take a breath / The simulation's breathing, too." The pussy section of the song slows the groove down and finds Barnes getting way too excited about inverting the phrase "contact high" and repeating "It's high conTACT" a bunch of times. But the first six minutes of the song are so good that the middling final two don't really diminish its impact.
"Paranoiac Intervals – Body Dysmorphia" is similarly styled, with a great beginning and middle and a slightly disturbing final chunk. Buzzing synths and active bass give "Paranoiac Intervals" a deep dance groove, which goes a long way towards offsetting the (appropriately) uncomfortable anxiety of the lyrics. Barnes' offhanded chorus declaration "You should be fucking with no one else" is simultaneously disturbing and catchy. For "Body Dysmorphia" the drumbeat stays the same but the bass and synth change from catchy to creepy, and it's a wonderful illustration of how it doesn't take much to completely transform a song. The final minute of the song finds Barnes moan-singing about how bad body dysmorphia feels. This all seems appropriate for the topic, but just as a listener it's probably good that it's confined to one minute at the end of the song.
The rest of White is Relic / Irrealis Mood tends to get by on individual sections but is less successful as full tracks. Opener "Soft Music – Juno Portraits of the Jovian Sky" bops along with another strong bassline but isn't as good from a melody or groove standpoint. The "Jovian Sky" portion of the song flows relatively naturally from "Soft Music", but its most notable feature is a pretty good solo using a '70s sci-fi synth sound.
"Writing the Circles – Orgone Tropics" features what sounds like processed and pitch-shifted vocals which disguise Barnes' voice and also deaden his affect. This is the slowest, least danceable song on the album and also the one that doesn't have a real second section. This all combines to make it the record's least interesting track. "Plateau Phase – No Careerism No Corruption", on the other hand, is the weirdest. It has the strangest collection of synth noises and it opens with Barnes declaring "Fucked in your driveway!" before sliding into a great little dance beat. But then it shifts again into more oddball sounds. The song bounces between three or four of these different musical passages but keeps just enough of a dance groove going that it doesn't lose its momentum.
The album finishes out with "If You Talk to Symbol – Hostility Voyeur". This is a song that begins with a great, dark synth and bass riff then shifts into a classic-style Of Montreal catchy chorus about Barnes feeling like he wants to blow things up. Barnes goes on about ghosting his girlfriend and knowing that it's wrong in a sad-sack tone of voice during this whole opening half. The dark mood continues into "Hostility Voyeur" as Barnes speak-sings about a whole smorgasbord of violent impulses before going into an ill-advised triplet-style rap that isn't catchy or interesting. Eventually the song winds its way into an extended outro featuring out of nowhere wailing saxophone and fluttering flute. This is the song that most resembles Barnes' divisive, scattered Skeletal Lamping album, and like that record, it only works in pieces, not as a whole.
At this point in his career it's clear that Kevin Barnes is following his own muse without regard to commercial viability or even holding onto a loyal audience. White is Relic / Irrealis Mood at least has the good sense to drape most of Barnes' stranger ideas in a layer of danceable grooves, which keeps it pretty accessible. As far as the more experimental Of Montreal records go, this is near the top of the list. This doesn't necessarily mean I can give it a straight recommendation, but it's more listenable than Barnes' most outré material. For longtime Of Montreal fans, "Paranoiac Intervals" and "Sophie Calle Private Game" are both well worth checking out, at the very least.