Album Review: of Montreal – I Feel Safe With You, Trash

[Sybaritic Peer; 2021]

After a quarter of a century and 16 albums, of Montreal are still finding new avenues of music to explore. The band (led by Kevin Barnes, often trailblazing by himself on record) have an exhausting oeuvre behind them, and have been pretty much putting out new music every year throughout their time active, be it an album, an EP, a compilation, or a lavish live record. They’ve gone from cutesy songs about love and happy bumblebees, to sugary, psychedelic pop, to fractured, devastating autobiographical testaments of emotional anguish. While every venture might not have been successful or entirely appetizing (one can’t but look back on the Georgie Fruit years with discomfort – something for which Barnes issued an apology last year), each one was all-out in its aim to capture its influence and inspiration through Barnes’ own personal lens.

Last year’s UR FUN, for instance, came off as unremarkable, mostly due to its tempered, simple electro-pop-inspired arrangements; it was a return to recognisable songwriting, and certainly wasn’t without some charm and enjoyable songs. Now Barnes returns in typical fashion: that being to completely change the station and style again and offer a further glimpse into one of indie’s busiest minds. I Feel Safe With You, Trash is a mammoth 20 track digital-only double album that has all the traits of an of Montreal album (verbose song titles, jarring tonal shifts, prolific and obtuse lyrics) and yet manages to not entirely sound quite like any other of Montreal album to date.

Tackling themes of gender identity, online existence, destructive indulgences, and self-reflection, as well as reckoning with living a COVID life indoors for a year, I Feel Safe is no less dense than previous albums, but just that bit different in its approach. Barnes circles around recurring phrases and ideas, making it feel like he’s both trying to reign in his scope of thought, and also like he’s trying to find different settings to help something make more sense.

Like on the 2018 album White Is Relic/Irrealis Mood, he sounds like he’s remixing his own material during the recording process. The album’s titular phrase, for example, crops up across various tracks, uttered differently each time. On “And We Can Survive Anything If We Fake It” and “So Chill Then (o Portão)” it’s a wallowing, pitch-bent lament, whereas on “Fingerless GlOves” it’s a screamo-like rasp sung over video-game thrash metal. These re-castings help bring a notable sense of cohesiveness to the album, something which helps its hour-plus runtime feel less like a slog and more like an inquisitive burrowing into Barnes’ thought process.

Sure, I Feel Safe still juts and jumps about – sometimes mid-song – much like on the exhausting and demanding Paralytic Stalks and Skeletal Lamping, but for of Montreal fans that’s an expectation that comes with any new release. Barnes still sounds like himself with his slinky Prince-like bass workouts and generous doses of multi-tracked vocals, and here he even sounds like specific versions of his past self too.

On “True Beauty ForeveR” and “Drowner’s TeÃrs” he sounds like he has progressed from the EDM influence of Innocence Reaches into making straight up hyperpop; sample-heavy and with chip tune vocals. Elsewhere you can find Bowie-like glam rock on “Now That’s What I Call Freewave” and even restful ambient backdrops like on “Notes Of ViOlate SPectates A Flatter Of Male” or the aforementioned closing track “So Chill Then (o Portão)”. It’s hard to call I Feel Safe any kind of genre study like with previous releases, but they do successfully manage to fuse together a lot of familiar styles with new sonic territory for the band. What each listener will highlight from the album mostly depends on what they want from an of Montreal album at this point in time.

Still, the tracks where Barnes has a clear throughline from start to end definitely do offer a strong ‘in’ to this dense landscape. “Aries Equals GoOd Trash” struts a sort of STRFKR-like underwater swagger with washed-out autoharp chords, luxuriating but never indulging needlessly. “Fuckheads Is The AuTo-Correction” follows suit with molasses-thick bass and a nonchalant delivery from Barnes as he sings tellingly referential lines like “I oversing ambivalence.” The low-lit, languid, and starry “JaPanese Word For Witch” is a good example of how Barnes can strip away a lot of unnecessary bells and whistles and let mood carry a song. “ExtracT The Masculine Germ From Remote Memory” boasts a classic of Montreal combo of flashiness and a little weirdness; “I wanna be famous for killing you,” Barnes remarks with indifference. These songs aren’t likely to shoot to the top of anyone’s favourite of Montreal songs list, but they are still notably strong efforts, showing that Barnes has still got it.

Barnes also delivers lyrically. Well, that is if you are up to date on art house references and surrealist authors – otherwise a lot of the content on I Feel Safe reads like flatulent discursiveness. And yet, sometimes he’ll throw out a line that only he could utter in his particular way (for better or worse): “Reality is a sloppy bitch”; “Every time I look at my phone I get brain damage.” Deeply invested fans will welcome all the lyrical strands the album offers are there for listeners to link together like a crime scene or conspiracy; references to black widows, glass and plastic, simulation living, and “the gate” (which is subtitled in Spanish in the first and last tracks and not-so-subtly hidden in capitalized letters of various tracks in between). Listening to the album on shuffle is worth doing a few times, at least so as to hear the lyrical references fit together differently, but also to lend the album surprising new moments of ebb and flow.

Reinvention, which is second nature to the band’s existence, comes up on multiple occasions too. “The old me is the new me’s scourge / The new me is the old me’s emotional janitor” Barnes intones on “Karlheinz ChOp Up Children.” And on “Aries Equals GoOd Trash” he questions, “How can we know what we are if we don’t know what we’re not? / How can we know what we’re not if we know that we’re everything and nothing?”

One telling theme which comes up though is a welcomingly referential look at talking too much and indulgent verbal diarrhoea. On “Queer as Love” Barnes tries to explain it as “I am talking to understand what I am trying to say,” while on “EquatOrial Hemorrhage Is A Dead Link” he states plainly, “You need to stop talking so you can start listening to yourself.” 

As evidenced by the more reflective ambient passages on the album (which are definitely the starkest and most intriguing moments here), it sounds like Barnes is trying to take his own advice to heart. While it probably doesn’t mean there’s a strictly instrumental ambient of Montreal album on the cards (though I reckon Barnes has one in him somewhere along the line), it’s perhaps a sign that there’s contemplative progress being made. I Feel Safe With You, Trash is an indulgent album by name and nature; Barnes sounds equally ready to slip into the blank void as much as he sounds ready to break out of this trashy funk and focus somewhere new. Whatever comes next, there’s a few things we know for sure: it won’t be long before it’s here and it’ll somehow sound that little bit different to all the of Montreal releases we’ve heard before.