Barnes shows that he has grasped and mastered the exhilaration and anxiety of the dance floor.
The burden of making songs you can dance to has proven, in some ways, to be a double-edged sword for Of Montreal. On the one hand, it has surely played a large role in garnering the critical and popular success they have enjoyed since 2005’s The Sunlandic Twins and their 2007 follow-up, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?. But it has also occasionally overshadowed how original, accomplished and innovative songwriter Kevin Barnes is, the closest that millennial music fans have to Rundgren. It is interesting, then, to see Barnes double down on his dancy, electronic impulses on the hyperproductive band’s latest release, the double-titled White Is Relic/Irrealis Mood.
Despite having only six tracks, this 15th Of Montreal album nonetheless lasts nearly 40 minutes; Barnes claims to have modeled each song along the lines of the “extended club mixes” that used to be de rigueur in the ‘80s. From opening track “Soft Music/Juno Portraits of the Jovian Sky,” it is clear that listeners are in for a full-scale synthesized groove assault. Luckily, all the pop-psychedelia that has made Barnes such a consistently exciting songwriter for the past 20 years is still here.
“Paranoiac Intervals/Body Dysmorphia” is as club-ready a track as Of Montreal has ever made—an honest-to-goodness banger with characteristically off-kilter lyrics, a running inventory of Barnes’s neuroses firing off in synchrony with his synapses. The everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to the arrangements works marvelously, while both paying homage to and building off ‘80s New Wave and goth extended dance mixes.
Even a (relatively) more subdued, druggy number like “Writing the Circles/Orgone Tropics,” though it is a bit plodding compared to the rest, has enough going for it (especially in its intriguing vocal-layering effects and “plucked” synth sounds) to keep the listener alert. The album only dips a little with “Plateau Phase/No Careerism No Corruption,” as the musical terrain feels more well-trod than the other tracks (it sounds like it could be a collaboration with Diplo), and the offbeat lyrics, lacking an adequate musical support, end up sounding more indulgent than they otherwise would.
But the bizarrely titled “Sophie Calle Private Game/Every Person Is a Pussy, Every Pussy Is a Star!” returns us to what’s best about the album, a sophisticated dance-glam hybrid that combines a kind of faux-insouciant affect with elaborate arrangements and the lyrical style Barnes has mastered, folding in psychological introspection with tongue-in-cheek whimsy. On this song in particular, the use of saxophones is particularly striking, introducing a visceral, organic element to the electronic slickness (the song also features a hell of a breakdown). And eight-and-a-half-minute closer “If You Talk to Symbol/Hostility Voyeur” approaches disco territory, featuring irresistible falsetto choruses early on before launching into a series of increasingly intense and even overwhelming sequences, creating a claustrophobic dance frenzy along the way.
On White Is Relic/Irrealis Mood, Barnes shows that he has grasped and mastered the exhilaration and anxiety of the dance floor, harnessing it into yet another memorable effort—psych-funk where the “psych” stands for “psychoanalysis.”