Technicolor beats make therapeutic self-obsession groovy.
Cute doesn’t cut it, at least not all the time. But take cute, add drum machines, and put him (yes, for our purposes, “cute” is a dude) in short-shorts, smear him with trashy makeup, wrap him in cellophane and bind him in handcuffs—as Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes has been doing onstage lately—and suddenly this thing called “cute” undergoes a transfiguration. It’s a whole new beast.
Once the most overtly precious of the Elephant 6 menagerie, Barnes has since jettisoned the everybody-and-his-roommate approach to recording and steered Of Montreal toward a complex, decidedly more adult interior. A remarkably extroverted interior, it’s filled with Prince vamps, glam overload, ultra-melodic bass and familiarly Beatlesque la-la-ing.
Perhaps due to a lifetime of exposure to clever pop, Barnes’ hook-crammed neuroses achieve near-concept-album status—and let’s praise Van Dyke Parks, ’cause it might be unbearable otherwise. Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? is probably the most fun one can reasonably have while wrestling with somebody else’s demons.
The sense of being inside Barnes’ head is amplified when he starts harmonizing with himself, like on the freak-funk “Labyrinthian Pomp” and the stained-glass cascades of “Gronlandic Edit.” Elsewhere, Barnes enters into self-dialogue (“Come on, mood shift / Shift back to good again,” he pleads on “Heimdalsgate Like A Promethean Curse”), and lyrics veer toward straight prose (“What has happened to you and I? / And don’t say that I’ve changed ’cause, man, of course I have,” goes a not-exactly-rhyming verse in “Cato as a Pun”).
Using every weirdo-pop trick he can conjure, Barnes reveals an intricate psyche. On the chorus of “She’s a Rejecter” alone, he cycles through three phrases with three different arrangements: stereo-panned acoustic guitars collapsing to a single one-note downstroking before bursting into disco-psychedelia. The intentionally awkward couplet of the middle phrase—“There’s the girl that left me bitter / Want to pay some other girl to just walk up to her and hit her”—drops like Wes Anderson dialogue, leaving one laughing and uncomfortable.
Barnes’ best songs brood with a sexuality that’s at once darkly violent and intimately fractured. “My body is an earthquake ready to receive you,” he claims on “Faberge Falls For Shuggie.” “Let’s tear the fucking house apart!” he screams in the middle of the 12-minute epic “The Past is a Grotesque Animal,” “Let’s tear our fucking bodies apart!” (“Let’s just have some fun,” he adds as an aside.)
As a songwriter, Barnes is still too smart for his own good, but now he seems too smart for our own good, too, and that’s loads more interesting—even if all the cryptic lyrics and skittering beats eventually start to blend. The disc’s dramatic and unrepentantly catchy opener, “Suffer For Fashion,” roars by like an avalanche of pathos. But one can dance to it, too—or, at least, jerk about as he or she sees fit. For all his peacocking multiplicity, Barnes captures something that feels remarkably true to the human experience. And, sure, humans can be cute. But they can be really freaky, too.