Friday, October 10, 2008

I'm Not a Woman, I'm Not a Man, I'm Something You'll Never Understand: Of Montreal's Skeletal Lamping

I'll admit that I hadn't really given Of Montreal much thought up until a couple of years ago when I first heard songs off Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer. I had somehow dismissed them in my mind as being like The Shins or any other number of American indie bands, but as I often am, I was very wrong. And I absolutely adored the last album with its unhinged blend of David Bowie and Prince theatrics and glam-funk experimentalism - and when I found out how much the band loved Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, I just loved them more. Not only was the music fantastic, but it was fantastically performed, whether at live shows (which I unfortunately have only been privy to via YouTube) or on television (I recorded their performance of Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse on Conan O'Brien in which there were so many people and props involved that they had to be classified as a theatre performance act rather than just a band, and I watched it several times over in complete awe of the ambitious, slightly insane, costume changes - I believe there was a lot of Kevin Barnes stepping in and out of his guitar, and wearing a lobster claw for awhile before rather nonchalantly ending up in a miniskirt and one garter).

Of course I wasn't the only one who took notice of Hissing Fauna - this glam-experimental documentation of a mental breakdown ended up being quite a success around the world. When I heard a few months back that Of Montreal would be releasing a new album called Skeletal Lamping this fall, it was one of the few that I really anticipated. And now having actually sat down and listened to the record, I'm impressed with its scope which builds on the fusion of glam and avant-garde indie that appeared on the previous album. This LP becomes an epic one of sorts with its restless shifts between styles and tempos; somehow they all still fit together in a memorable hustle down an interstellar highway. Apparently, this album utilizes Barnes's Ziggy Stardust-like alter ego, Georgie Fruit, to fuller effect than on the previous album, and along with him, comes a Prince-like funky obsession with sex and its myriad permutations.

The album kicks off with Nonpareil of Favor, which features those overdubbed Barnes's vocals that end up creating a rather distinctive choir to back Barnes's Bowiesque yips and squeals. Like most of the tracks on the album, style and tempo is in constant flux, ending with a pounding rhythm, reverbing guitars and vocals sounds that mimic fingers spinning around the rims of wineglasses and creating a perverse music of the spheres. It melds into Wicked Wisdom, which brings in a funky bassline, and Georgie Fruit takes centre-stage as a "black she-male" while borrowing lines out of Queen's songbook. The album continues into a psychedelic disco number called For Our Elegant Caste, in which Barnes's falsetto coos "we can do it should know I take it both ways" - it feels a bit like a transsexual Syd Barrett doing the hustle. This track, in turn, blends into the broad piano chording and brief moment of sober self-reflection ("Why am I so damaged? Why am I so troubled?") in Touched Something's Hollow before exploding into the trumpet-led symphony of An Eluardian Instance that carries hints of A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger. However, four minutes into this song, it decides it wants to be an entirely different song before abruptly entering into Gallery Piece, which reminds me of some of the sentiments in Prince's If I Was Your Girlfriend; the pumping rhythm backs the plethora of conflicting desires involving his/her lover (scratch your cheeks, tell you lies, write you books, crash your car, paint your nails, braid your hair, make you paranoid, etc.) as though the narrator's id has taken over and is calling the shots as they emerge.

Women's Studies Victims alternates between a heartbeat vibrating through walls of muscle and circuit board, ghostly voices that sound like they're drifting through a grey haze of cerebral matter, and Barnes's rapping over galactic organ. St. Exquisite's Confessions is an urban-weary ballad that uses brilliant, unexpected lyrics like "sky pregnant with maggots" and "we give each other sobriquets" over a slow jam with harp-like strums of guitar. Triphallus, To Punctuate! features more of Barnes's lyrical talents as he uses lines like "the greek chorus of my skull is choking on their dulcet tones" and "filling your womb with black butterflies" while bemoaning a lover's newly-found fame and success. This then leads into And I've Seen a Bloody Shadow where obstacles appear and there is "bad weather in my temporary head" as sonic walls of paranoia seem to close in. The transition between this track and the following Plastis Wafers is even more abrupt and sounds like someone tuning in an entirely different channel of the narrator's brain in mid-thought. This track is one of the more overt odes to sex as the narrator muses over what it feels like to be inside his/her lover and the kinkiness of role play extending to roles in Oedipus Rex. The Greek myth leitmotif stitches the song together as the narrator takes on yet another role as Orpheus and the music shifts into an echo-drenched, cavernous netherworld as though he/she could have finally entered fully inside his lover and curled up inside the darkness of another. The song ends with a tribal dance of demonic voices that feel like they're circling, dilating and contracting like discoball reflections on the ceiling and walls of this dark place.

Death is Not a Parallel Move takes a more clinical and mechanical electro sound as Barnes's detached vocals herald a final separation of the mortal and immortal pieces of the body and the second half of the song is delivered in a gentler, coaxing manner as self-destruction looms, inevitable. Beginning with scrambled distortion, Beware Our Nubile Miscreants uses a strutting glam to act as a warning to the anti-hero of this story not to fall for a particular male, who will "leave you in the k-hole to go play Halo in the other room." Mingusings warps you into a funhouse mirror kaleidoscope, where the music swirls like a dreamscape and the id struggles back against an impending re-imprisonment in a bottle. Id Engager, the first single to hit the Internet quite awhile ago, ends the record, "screaming from the depths of a phallocentric tyranny" and wildly grooving through an unbridled disco party where gender and sexuality is irrelevant.

While Hissing Fauna took us on a journey of sorts through Barnes's stuggle with depression and a possible nervous breakdown, Skeletal Lamping lays bare a different dimension of his psyche, especially an id preoccupied with sex and human relations. As schizophrenic as the album seems, it still has a cohesion that demonstrates a stream of consciousness that is repeatedly dammed and diverted in order to explore all dimensions of this psychological landscape. Through it all, it feels like the id is at the hedonistic party depicted on an updated version of Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights on the album's cover art, proclaiming itself in human form, a messiah for pleasure, independent of rules and classification. Georgie Fruit becomes as symbolic and controversially uncontainable as those that preceded him/her, born from a fevered, genius brain. Skeletal Lamping is truly a spectacular achievement and deserves to be remembered as one of the classic albums of the decade. Perhaps the surest way to accomplish something bigger than ourselves is to leap into bigger, alien shoes without looking. We can never fully understand all of our desires without becoming something our minds tell us we're not. I think Kevin Barnes has proven it with this brilliant record.

Nonpareil of Favor - Of Montreal

Plastis Wafers - Of Montreal