Kevin Barnes Settles Downor Does He?
There’s a cruel condition often placed on pop stars, that they have to be unhappy to write good songs. They get off drugs, they get married, and they lose their edge—it’s a heavy burden to put on an icon.
Enter Kevin Barnes, pursued by a bear.
Under the assumed band name “of Montreal,” Barnes has created some of the most inventive, intelligent, and purely enjoyable pop music of the last decade. Beginning as a satellite of the Athens, Georgia, collective Elephant 6—out of which sprung Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel, Apples in Stereo, and many others—Barnes crafted quirky story-songs on albums he often wrote and played primarily by himself. The series of fun, if slight, recordings Barnes produced combined his odd sense of humor and incessant falsetto with bits of Ray Davies and Brian Wilson, and rhythms borrowed from early disco. By the time of 2004’s Satanic Panic in the Attic and the following year’s popular breakthrough The Sunlandic Twins, Barnes’s chops for arrangement and production had developed enough to let him realize the little masterpieces in his head, and the development of a steady touring band allowed them to be reproduced on the road.
In the last few years, however, Barnes has been born anew by that which often kills rock stars: a wife, a baby, domestic tranquility. On last year’s Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? Barnes delivered the most personal songs of his career, singing openly about happiness but also the loneliness of relocating to his wife’s native Norway after the birth of their daughter, and dealing with dark days and unknown languages. It was perhaps his most depressive album to date, born of bliss.
And now? The floodgates are open. The married Barnes, it seems, is writing the songs that bachelor Barnes didn’t have the nerve to sing. Lust, jealousy, desperation, and literary references run rampant through the new Skeletal Lamping. The album opens with a dedication, delivered in catchy, unrhymed couplets:
My lover, I’ve been donating time to review all the misinterpretations that define me and you / I’m thinking about you in my secret language ’cause I know you’re the only one who can help me take it easy / Now I’m happy in the head knowing there ain’t no sucker in the world that’s a threat to us and we’ve become material / It’s like you were always there just on the tip of my tongue and I needed you to happen.
Skeletal Lamping is a long, late-night soliloquy. It’s that awkward, extended moment where one lover—in raw, post-coital honesty—decides to tell the other all the reasons he is damaged goods, all the transgressions of the past, while the other listens and smiles, having sensed much of it already and knowing that the rest is not important. But unlike the usual bedtime confessional, it’s done with a backbeat.
Pre-techno dance music has always been an important element in of Montreal’s music, but here Barnes borrows directly from the master: the sudden changes in tempo and key, the treated vocals, the bisexual teasing, the intellectual referencing all bow directly before Prince. It may be Germaine Greer instead of Dorothy Parker, but the result is the same: fey machismo swagger masking the hurt and confusion of being alone on the dance floor.
And then? If everything’s OK? If all sins are forgiven, as surely they are? The confessor revels, as happened at Roseland Ballroom on October 10, when Barnes brought his six-piece touring band, five dancers, and a constantly changing stage set to New York. To warn of spoiler alerts would be to mistakenly suggest that talking about the realization of his every fantasy would somehow ruin it. Barnes emerged from a gold sarcophagus dressed like a queer toreador to Lamping’s “Id Engager.” He sat in gold briefs atop a white horse to sing “St. Exquisite’s Confessions.” There was some Mummenschanz and some Tom of Finland; body painting, enormous rollerskates, and a fanny pack like a toaster oven; Pan and a centaur and Mexican wrestlers. Barnes shot himself in the head, was hung from a noose, emerged in a flower-encrusted casket, and covered Kurt Cobain, as his band of multi-instrumentalists happily, proficiently backed him.
And in the midst of it all, he was grounded, in control. Does this make him scary? Is he the maniac who repeatedly died and was reborn throughout the course of the show? Do we all think crazy, jealous, angry, oversexed, homicidal thoughts sometimes? Do we all dream of dressing in cardinal red with a leggy nun massaging our feet once in a while? Should we get all Freud on him as he repents alongside camouflaged dancers with machine guns? Or is it better just to dance?
Or maybe there is another moral to be had:
How do you become a superstar? Put some reverb on your voice and say you already are one.
KURT GOTTSCHALK writes about music for various publications, hosts the Miniature Minotaurs show on WFMU, and struggles with a variety of stringed instruments.