Of Montreal: Decoding the References

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I’m here to prove what critics have said about Kevin Barnes for years: the man is strange.

It should be an easy enough task, right? With the extreme performances, the feminine makeup, and the bizarre, hallucinatory lyrics?

It’s probably safe to say that Barnes, of Montreal’s founder, is the most erudite frontman in indie music. His songs are imbued with so many references to literature and mythology and even surrealist cinema that it can almost become overwhelming. Which is odd, considering that the band’s actual music—which has attracted many pithy descriptions, my favorite of which comes from the iTunes label of the album Skeletal Lamping: “Baroque Pop”—is about as danceable and melodic as anything you’ll find outside top 40 radio. It’s almost like the incredible attention to lyrical detail is designed to put the listener off—don’t worry about the meaning, he might be saying, because it’s totally indecipherable. Just enjoy the sound and the energy.

That can’t be Barnes’ intent, though, because there’s too much effort involved for a simple act of misdirection. You can negate lyrical importance easily enough by grunting or mumbling or writing nonsense. He just happens to have read and consumed quite a bit of art in his time (Barnes is 37 now), and he enjoys crafting songs full of esoteric nods to the artistic past. Since he puts so much time into their construction, it’s reasonable to believe that he wants us to enjoy them too, or at least put a modicum of effort into the act of understanding.

I haven’t always given it my best attempt, but after attending a truly excellent of Montreal show last week in North Carolina, I feel it’s time to make the uphill journey to Barnes’ wavelength. Let’s start by looking at a song title:

Upon Settling on the Frozen Island, Lecithin Presents Claude and Coquelicot with His Animal Creations for Them to Approve or Reject (The Rejected Inventions Walk Towards the Reverse Magnetizer)

Apologies for the lazy simile, but this title is like Sufjan Stevens on acid. While Stevens has an affinity for run-on sentences littered with proper nouns, he’s at least dealing in the world of comprehensible reality. For Barnes, invention is more fun. The lyrics to this particular song consist entirely of “oh yes” and “oh no,” but in conjunction with the strange title, it’s enough to give you a disturbing (or at least exotic) mental picture. And that’s just a sliver of what we’re dealing with in Barnes’ creative oeuvre. This track comes from a concept album titled “Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse.” In Barnes’ words, it’s about a “fairy-like creature … employed to put bells in people’s hearts” who “decides to discard her bells and experience life as a human.” It’s one of many concept albums he’s made, and the whole Barnes iceberg, viewed at once, can be staggering.

“Upon Settling” isn’t a reference to anything but his own brain, yet it’s possible to see the origin of such chimerical constructs in the mythical literature he favors elsewhere. In fact, Barnes is one of the most eccentric on-stage performers in American music. of Montreal was formed in Athens, Ga., in 1996 as part of the famous Elephant-6 collective, and almost since the beginning, his stage show has involved comedy sketches and other gimmicks. Since 2007, he performed as an alter-ego called Georgie Fruit, a black man in his 40s with a past that’s included multiple sex change operations. There are layers and layers of invention and history and muddled sexuality in every aspect of Barnes’ artistic identity, and whether those intrinsic qualities attracted him to arcane art, or whether the art played its own infusing role, the influences are easy to spot. (And it may be a genetic thing, too; his brother David does the artwork for most of his albums, and, to pluck an example at random, the cover of Satanic Panic in the Attic is a “psychedelic parody of El Greco’s ‘The Burial of the Count of Orgaz.’” You’re forgiven if you didn’t spot it the first time.)

In one of his most popular songs, the escapist “Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games,” Barnes peppers a childhood reversion fantasy with intellectual references galore. It begins in the first verse:

Let’s have bizarre celebrations
Let’s forget who forget what forget where
We’ll have bizarre celebrations
I’ll play the satyr in Cyprus, you the bride being stripped bare

Let’s pretend we don’t exist
Let’s pretend we’re in Antarctica

Obvious question: what does that fourth line mean? There are two ways to attack this. The first is to chase down the references. A satyr is a mythological figure, half-man, half-goat, known for its sexual appetite. “The Bride Being Stripped Bare” is a piece of art by Marcel Duchamp that can generously be called enigmatic, but loosely depicts the erotic interaction of the bride and nine bachelors. But now that we know the references, can we ever really know what Barnes means? The rest of the song, with lyrics like, “maybe I’ll never die, I’ll just keep growing younger with you,” seems relatively inoffensive and sweet. But that remarkable line has a biting, aggressive edge that tinges the whole narrative with his trademark strangeness.

Later, he compares the couple to “Tristan and Isolde,” referencing the early part of the ancient tale where the lovers are entranced by a love potion, and noting that the eventual deadly ending won’t apply to them. But by even mentioning the implicit tragedy, he undercuts the fantasy and exposes the impossibility of paradise. It’s a brilliant little stroke; within the breezy pop structure of the melody, the darkness of Barnes’ outlook clouds the utopia.

In my favorite song, “So Begins Our Alabee,” written about his newborn daughter of the same name, Barnes uses Roman mythology and Italian poetry to make his point:

The chrysalis is breaking, and the superego’s waking
I’ve been a gloomy Petrarch with a quill as weepy as Dido
You’re my mousy aesthete, you’re my buoyant cherub, it’s true
And I never want to be your little friend the abject failure

Here the melancholy poet (Petrarch) and the tragic heroine (Dido) are used as a contrast for the promise of a more vital future, but again we see how he relates to his world through the guise of fiction and art.

It would be too simplistic to say that every song in the of Montreal catalog delves into the cryptic vaults of artistic history. Many others are bare love ballads (albeit at a breakneck tempo), and others still are unadorned personal reflections on the anxiety and depression Barnes has coped with for years. It’s a mistake to see the references as a disguise—he’s not one of those intellectuals who camouflages himself in abstruse knowledge. In fact, he’s a painfully honest figure, both in songs and interviews. The referential tendency is not a method of escape; paradoxically, it’s an act of bravery. He seeks himself in the creative output of those who have come before—a new version of the very old idea of “standing on the shoulders of giants”—and in doing so attains an unpretentious, visionary clarity that is rare enough in today’s creative climate.

The truth is unavoidable, and his detractors are irrefutable: Kevin Barnes is strange. If only there were more like him.