Prolific songwriters tend to flabbergast with their steady flow of releases, sometimes unfortunately casting aside true substance in favor pure mass. Kevin Barnes – operating, as always, under his Of Montreal guise – is no stranger to this trend, having time and again astonished audiences with both his rapid fire cadence of new releases and multi-faceted songs that are sometimes as gauche as they are eclectic.
Since 1997, the Athens, Georgia native has pumped out no fewer than a dozen albums of rapturous indie pop, beginning with the gleeful debut Cherry Peel. Over the years, the naïve whimsy has been dialed down to make room for more sexual drama and glammed-up cynicism, but Barnes has never loosened his grip on a songwriting style that consistently manages to boggle listeners with its capricious musicality. It’s well known that Of Montreal has spent most of its career in the left field, and 2008’s maddeningly uneven Skeletal Lamping only confirmed that Mr. Georgie Fruit (our leading man’s alter ego of the past three years) was perfectly content to hug the warning track for the foreseeable future.
Like his hero Prince Rogers Nelson before him, Barnes has woven an impressive tapestry of work over the span of his career, often towing that perilous but no less tempting line between raunch and sophistication. So it goes with False Priest, an album that makes a tremendous case for namedropping Mr. Purple Rain more than just once or twice. It’s a remarked rebound from Skeletal Lamping, though the album isn’t exactly going to reign in any prospective fans either; accessibility has and always will take a back seat to artistic ambition with this act. If anyone is going to be seduced into this beautiful mess, it’ll be the fault of Jon Brion, whose booty-shaking production here ensures enough low end to keep the bodies moving all night long, even as Barnes sings about being soaked in animal blood.
False Priest continually flirts with both funk and R&B, two mainstays of the Prince catalog. “I Feel Ya Strutter” goes for the throat right away with squealing synths, yelping falsetto vocals, and chopped up shards of electric guitar that sound like any number of John Frusciante licks. It’s a hyperactive, raucous opener, Barnes sounding incredibly chipper when he sings, “I was so blessed with you / girlfriend.” Part-time collaborator and friend Janelle Monáe shows up for “Our Riotous Defects,” a bombastic glam/funk hybrid about a crazy girl who killed a betta fish. Or something.
Lead single “Coquet Coquette” is one of the first tracks to show off the luster resulting from Brion’s touch; the song absolutely kills with its gargantuan drums, intensely melodic bass line, and agitated guitar. Companion cut “Godly Intersex” operates on similar terms, as a club beat, hand claps, shimmering electronics, and Barnes’ helium-high vocals turn things into an adults-only interplanetary jam.
Most of the album’s other tracks explore similar terrain, in which Barnes vacillates between the seedy (“Sex Karma,” featuring Solange Knowles) and speculative (“Enemy Gene,” once again with Monáe). Only on the darkly confessional “Casualty of You” does everything get stripped away to reveal an entirely defeated man (“Everything is wrong / I’m a casualty of you”) as ominous piano, drums, and strings plod along.
Other noteworthy numbers include the synthesizer-heavy “Hydra Fancies,” and “Famine Affair,” which boasts a chugging bass line, lyrics about someone’s evil ways (“Like some childish demon that takes pleasure from its sting / you’re a bad thing / bad thing”) and an anthemic chorus that is captivating in its simplicity.
Barnes may overuse his giddy falsetto and the album still feels a little too dense at times – as is the case with the seven-minute closer, “You Do Mutilate?” – but False Priest generally packs the kind of shock and awe that made 2007’s Hissing Fauna such a delight. Throw in some deft work at the boards by one of today’s hottest producers and a couple of guest appearances by notable female vocalists, and you’ve got one of 2010’s most colorful releases. It’s not for everyone, but that’s half the fun of it.