If you wanted to get all psychoanalytical about it, you could say Kevin Barnes’ soaring falsetto is a mere manifestation of his restlessness. And all those words he crams into Of Montreal’s songs? Same thing. The dude feels he has so much to say and so little time to say it in that he spits them out a mile a minute as his voice reaches Dirty Mind-era-Prince heights.
Check out this line from “Our Riotous Defects,” one of the best songs from last year’s False Priest: “My God, I should’ve realized on our second date when you dragged me into the bathroom at Tameka’s house and screamed at me for like 20 minutes because I had contradicted you in front of your friends/I was like, Oh/And then later that night at my apartment, as punishment, you killed my betta fish/You just threw it out the window.”
At times, Barnes is a marvel to behold. Other times he verges on annoying. Either way, no band has made a transformation quite like Of Montreal over the past 14 years.
On their 1997 debut, theAthens,Georgia, group distilled many of the same influences as other bands in their Elephant 6 collective, making a sort of artsier version of Beatlesque indie pop. But they’ve evolved – sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly – over the years, until they ended up what they are now: a theater-like troupe of funky performance artists made up of more than a dozen members. “I view it as a life form that has its own trajectory,” says Barnes. “I think back to [those first albums] and I don’t really identify with them, like a completely different person made them. It’s like a typical human evolution: The early albums are very sweet and naïve but they evolved into something more mature and sexual.”
The evolution began in earnest with Of Montreal’s ninth album, 2008’s Skeletal Lamping. That’s when Barnes (who plays most of the music on the band’s records himself) let his R&B-singing, cross-dressing alter ego Georgie Fruit take over for an entire album. False Priest is a bigger and tighter version of its spazzy predecessor, using live instruments instead of synths, and singers Janelle Monae and Solange Knowles (Beyoncé’s sister), who add sweetness to the sometimes sour mix.
“I wanted to make something that was more accessible and immediate,” says Barnes. “I have a tendency to put too many ideas into my records. Any song can go in so many directions, and there’s that tendency to just take it there.”
Just as Of Montreal’s music has gotten more ambitious, straying outside its comfort zone, same goes for the feather-boa-wearing man behind it. False Priest is the first album Barnes recorded outside of hisAthens studio (it was made inLos Angeles) and the first time he’s worked with a producer.
Jon Brion (who’s helped shape albums by Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann, and Kanye West) arranges sounds that Barnes just kinda threw out there before. The post-disco beats running through songs like “I Feel Ya’ Strutter” and “Our Riotous Defects” lead to messy, glorious trips. “There are so many different ways to listen to music,” says Barnes. “There’s so much going on in Stevie Wonder’s records. When you dissect them in your head, you hear all these things going on. That’s the great thing about music. It can be very complex but also very sneaky.”
Barnes’ continuous restlessness yielded thecontrollersphere EP last month. He calls it a folk record, but that genre tag is debatable, since the highlight — a sprawling and amp-shredding five-minute workout called “Black Lion Massacre” – is the noisiest thing Of Montreal have ever recorded. “I’m never really satisfied with the things I do,” says Barnes. “I never feel like I’ve accomplished anything, so I’m always looking for the next thing.”
Thecontrollersphere isn’t baroque pop or funk machine or anything else, really, found in the group’s bag of sounds (even though most of the songs are False Priest leftovers). It’s Of Montreal between stages, once again, and is likely a sign of things to come. “It’s a bridge,” says Barnes. “It’s noisier and more cacophonous, which is where I’m heading. But it’s hard to say where you are in a moment. I really don’t know where I’m at right now.”