Album Review: of Montreal – False Priest

[Polyvinyl; 2010]

In a recent interview Kevin Barnes said he never made music for jocks. Instead he wanted to appeal to “sensitive people” and create something the type of people who gave him a hard time growing up would never be into. And he succeeded with the majority of his first releases, writing songs about panda bears, tea parties and a plentiful amount of other things that are superficially void of any corruption. But since The Sunlandic Twins Barnes has sounded less and less and like he’s trying to avoid appealing to a particular crowd and instead gone for music creation as a channel for his own emotions, desires, hopes and fantasies. And what fantasies they were. After the cathartic release brilliantly projected on 2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? the audience was treated to the exhausting aftermath on Skeletal Lamping where Barnes lived out the (often sexual) exploits of his alter ego Georgie Fruit. As much as people dismiss it for its sheer overflowing exuberance and fragmented structure they also let it pass, deeming it an indulgence for Barnes which was acceptable after reaching a pinnacle with Hissing Fauna. Sometimes it just helps to get it out of your system.

But this puts new record False Priest in an odd position leaving me only questioning its purpose. For a fair majority of the record’s length it’s talking about more unashamed sexual escapades. But for an equal length it’s also a return to a more conventional structure – songs with verses and choruses and all that stuff we miss and thought might be gone from the of Montreal agenda. The only song here which structurally resembles anything from Skeletal Lamping is ostentatious seven minute closing track “You Do Mutilate?.” Because it seeks to have those not really necessary left turns it ends up feeling cut and pasted which is a shame because there are two really great sections weighed down by another two unneeded ones.

The numerous references to what sounds like an average week for Georgie Fruit will nonetheless have an understandable majority of listeners pairing this with the album that preceded it. And they will likely concede that False Priest isn’t quite as crude as Lamping. Despite actually having the word “sex” in two song titles the lyrical content favours playful slang and unspecific events and people. And this can easily put Barnes in a negative light, putting him down as a worn out mad genius rebel who sounds like he’s trying to squeeze whatever else he can out of the Georgie Fruit persona that overtook him. Throughout the record his voice wavers about erratically going from sincere concern to orgasmic wailing in the blink of an eye at times, rarely settling down and remaining at a consistent tone for a whole song.

I feel bad though for calling Barnes tired and lacking in ideas. At the very least the music on this album is solid and exceptional at the best of times. Jon Brion’s production does seem to have done wonders in highlighting the best moments of songs, enriching good ideas even more. During the chorus to “Sex Karma” the vocal harmonies raise the chirpy and upbeat music to the clouds while the organ that begins as backing drive to “Enemy Gene” blasts into the picture from background as it delivers its phenomenal chorus for second time. It would easy to say Brion saved False Priest from being just another of Montreal full of stuttering drum machines and indulgent vocal build ups. But as much as Brion has made a footprint (that synth solo of “Hydra Fancies” has his mark all over it) there’s still plenty here to make it feel like Barnes was in the driving seat. Over the past few records Barnes has successfully created his own kind of identifiable style with the way he layers his voices, fills the gaps with tiny musical gems or little back phrases, creating a whole other level of nuanced detail that makes his work worth revisiting. But combine this with Brion’s skill and desire to make this a deeper sounding record and Barnes’s style undeniably comes off better sounding. On some good speakers or headphones you’ll the album differently and pick up on all kinds of musical detail both the creator and producer have peppered across the thirteen tracks.

But this is where another similarity to Lamping comes in. As many great moments as there are on this record they can often feel stuck in between weaker and more unsatisfying ones. Barnes can still write some brilliant and catchy choruses but often the verses are weak and pointless for their lyrical content. Only when he changes the tempo during the song do things tend to get more enjoyable and interesting. “Famine Affair” is tedious to begin with as Barnes warns the “bad thing” to “go ‘way, go away, go ‘way go ‘way” over and over without sounding threatening or even angry (or like he’s trying). But when the pace picks up after the ninety second mark the song becomes engaging and Barnes sounds cleverly bitter before the song unfortunately returns to the way it began. Aforementioned “Sex Karma,” as blissful as it is musically, suffers from verses that have gone in one ear and other the other while the chorus wiggled its way into my head.

But for all its imperfections False Priest is a generally enjoyable record. In all honesty when I started listening I hated it, hearing it as nothing more than a silly and pointless indulgence without any sort of consistency or narrative to keep me engaged. After a few listens though I realised that yes, it is silly (the opening two songs in particular) but it can also be unashamedly enjoyable for the listener too. It’s easy to try seek meaning from this record and at times it shows itself: there are a few references to Barnes’s childhood, letting us delve a little deeper into his mind while there are also songs that could be interpreted as continuations of “Touched Something’s Hollow” where Barnes explores what having an alter ego can do to his mind. For a record with a title like False Priest you might even expect Barnes to explore the nature of religion and its effects or even the effect it had on him more deeply (he grew up in a Catholic household). Instead at the end of the record he seems to take up the role of preacher, dismissing the idea of having faith in a God. For a free spirit like Barnes it seems odd to have him judging us for once. I guess then it proves that this record is again made for Barnes – not entirely as an indulgence or as a therapeutic release but as a way for Barnes to expel the idea that perhaps listening should not be such a separating action. For once, even if only for a brief moment, False Priest lets the listener be a victim in Barnes’s dizzying and chaotic world. And after everything he’s been through it was only inevitable that we got sucked in at some point.