Of Montreal fans have, in a sense, been reading frontman Kevin Barnes’ diary for the past 20 years.
Endearingly vulnerable and addictingly frank, his lyrics are emotionally magnetic, with enough highbrow literary references and sesquipedalian terminology to make you feel like you’re in with the smart kids if you get it.
However, with the names of real people and real events included, he’s the first to admit that he’s had to begin thinking about the impact his music can have on those he’s writing about.
“I tried to be a little bit more generous this time around or, at least, approach it from a less bitter or critical state of mind. Mainly if I’m like … dealing with someone who I really like a lot, then felt really frustrated with in wanting things to be better or different, but having to accept that they weren’t,” Barnes says. “There’s some anger in that — in feeling that this person is really special and you could have a really good relationship with them if they could just get over certain character flaws or whatever. You know, get their syndrome under control. It can be really frustrating, but I’m sure a lot of people are frustrated with me.”
The band’s 2016 release, Innocence Reaches, offers an “open journal” exploring Barnes’ personal, therapeutic processing of events — it’s almost equally about battling with love, giving into new love, and being alone. Aside from relationships, the album also serves up glimpses of Barnes’ own views on gender politics. The first eight words on the record ask, “How do you identify? How do you I.D.?”
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“I think people who are transitioning, people whose sexuality is more fluid, people who just have more question marks in their head with other people are people I just identify more with,” he says. “I’ve never really felt that comfortable in my own skin. You know, [while] younger, I definitely had a lot of question marks in my own head.”
Half the fun of seeing Of Montreal live is the theatrically grandiose original productions that each tour brings, with Barnes at the helm presenting an “exaggerated version” of himself for your viewing pleasure as he uses the stage for his own gender inquiry. He says this round of shows incorporates about five costume changes on his part and a fair amount of drag elements (as well as a large inflatable penis with a Donald Trump mask that gets arrested by police only for that all to devolve into a strip tease of sorts).
“The fact that I enjoy exploring different sides of sexuality in my own work and performances. I think it’s healthy,” Barnes says. “I like time to create environments and spaces for people to do the same. … I don’t really mind that it might seem like it’s sometimes potentially superficial or maybe less intellectual or less serious when I’m dancing around in a little apron and tights or something.”
There’s a pretty clear dividing line in motif for Innocence Reaches, which is the band’s 14th record. Barnes wrote songs like “let’s relate,” “it’s different for girls,” and “my fair lady” during a summer spent in Paris getting down on modern electronic composers like Holly Herndon. Some of the album’s more rocking Aureate Gloom-style tunes such as “gratuitous abysses” and “chaos arpeggiating” were a collaborative studio effort.
The album’s pulsing dance tracks offer a new exploration of Barnes’ songwriting prowess — a step into the future out of the retro-nostalgia the band dabbled with on the past few albums. These songs feel more like the widely lauded genius of the band’s 2007 album Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? that helped propel the band into the hearts of fans and year-end critics’ lists.
“If you’re always going to be backwards-leaning, you’ll never be able to create anything that pushes the envelope at all,” he says of his moves into modernity.
On the other hand, the ensemble rock tracks delve into Barnes’ continuing love of “lost eras,” namely the prog and punk scenes of the ’70s. Of course, the bass-driven, characteristic (and inescapable) funky core of Of Montreal remains intact.
“It’s hard to defy yourself. As much as you might try or as much as I try to create something that feels different, there’s always going to be a thread that connects them all,” Barnes says. “In a way, it’s not intentional at all. It’s actually something I’m fighting against, but I can’t escape from, I guess.”
Despite that common voice,
“To be honest, at this point, I wish that I would have made two albums or at least taken a few of the songs off the album and made it feel more cohesive as an electronic statement,” Barnes says. “In a way, it feels like I sometimes put too much on an album, and it’s hard for people to really stay focused when things feel sort of all over the place.
“Sometimes I think, ‘Well, maybe the reason that my albums don’t seem to resonate [with critics, particularly] might be because there’s too many ideas being thrown at them at once,’” Barnes says.
Often, Innocence’s complication is reduced in articles as Of Montreal’s formal foray into EDM — a characterization that was both self-inflicted and turned out to make Barnes less satisfied with his own finished product.
“Whatever you put in the press bio is going to be the thing people think about when they’re listening to the record. ‘Okay, so they’re saying ‘it’s an EDM record … so I’ll be the judge. Is this a successful attempt at making EDM or is this a failed attempt?’” Barnes says. “It’s always very much linked with how you’re trying to frame it for people initially.”
Barnes admits he just sort of lets his music be what it is — EDM or not. While he’s quick to note he’s not making music for critics’ approval, he also sees criticism as a driving force for him.
“I think in a certain way me not getting great reviews all the time and not feeling like a critics’ darling is probably better for me as an artist than someone who whatever they do people say it’s magic or brilliant — like the Kanye syndrome or whatever,” he says. “It could make you potentially really delusional or disconnected, and I think that having that thing to fight for or prove to yourself is part of the process.”
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The Kevin Barnes who seems compelled to write to maintain his own sanity and is always releasing a new album in the way he wants to, and the Kevin Barnes who, in a sense, is a small business owner employing a handful of artists and musicians to produce music and live performances, are two forces trying to work together to continue on into another decade for the band. The symbiotic relationship is tenuous, at times, but, even if it completely devolves, Barnes admits he probably still wouldn’t stop.
“If we went on tour and nobody came to the shows, that would be the end and that would be sad. You have to kind of consider that maybe this could be the last one. It could get bigger or smaller, but you have to adapt and keep going,” Barnes says.
“In the early days, we were sleeping on people’s floors for many, many years and it was still fun and I still got fulfillment out of it, so if it ever gets back to that stage where we’re playing for 50 people and begging them to let us sleep on their floor, maybe I’ll still be able to do it, because that’s how I started off.”
Of Montreal is scheduled to play Crescent Ballroom on Tuesday, October 25.