“The new forms were germinating” —“Godly Intersex,” False Priest
As heavily as Kevin Barnes’ music draws on styles like soul, funk, electro, glam, indie, and everything else that he throws into the blender that is his musical consciousness, you can tell that he’s not a genre hijacker. Accusations of cultural piracy that haunt guys like Vampire Weekend and even Dirty Projectors don’t come close to Barnes; much to the contrary, among of Montreal’s collaborators on False Priest include leftfield R&B masterminds Janelle Monáe and Solange Knowles, and the album was given a sonic makeover by former Kanye West co-producer Jon Brion. The full-flavored R&B vocals and deeper, expanded low-end frequencies of the tracks don’t interrupt of Montreal’s aesthetic coherence (what little of it there is) or stylistic integrity. Instead, they adorn the thing that Barnes had already achieved, providing confirmation that, yes, he’s onto something, something weird and unique and occasionally irresistible. It’s not something borrowed or sliced off from existing wholes; it’s something that has been born in the same way anything else is born. The shock and novelty here doesn’t derive from a juxtaposition of contexts, because this isn’t a genetic collage; it’s miscegenation.
“The identity I composed out of terror/ Has become oppressive now” —“Death Isn’t a Parallel Move,” Skeletal Lamping
Although Barnes seems to have grown a bit since 2008’s Skeletal Lamping and has backed off from the extreme fragmentation of that album’s manic, restless floor plan, he’s still in the same artistic zone he’s been in for the last few years. On False Priest, there are more slippery grooves that remember what “groove” meant in the 70s; there are more rambling, hyper-literate emotional confessions; and there are more batshit catalogs of the details of an insatiable and multivalent sexual desire, details that Barnes showers all over the album’s architecture like blood splattered on the walls after a massacre. But now, perhaps more than in the past, I sense a bewildering combination of liberation and guilt. It’s as if, in spite of everything that Barnes is able to do with his detailed arrangements and their shape-shifting, context-defying character, there is still some shadowy awareness of an order that threatens and poisons his freedom. The false priest of the title is never literal, never even a metaphor, but the image hangs just outside of the atmosphere that Barnes seems to be constantly creating and recreating out of his fertile but troubled imagination.
“There’s a dragon rape if you want one” —Kevin Barnes, “Like a Tourist,” False Priest
It’s nearly impossible to form any coherent statements about of Montreal’s music; both its strengths and weaknesses have a weird way of contradicting and undoing themselves. Album highlight “Sex Karma” revels in a solipsistic abandonment to sexuality, replete with soaring and playful vocals by Solange, but a similar abandonment plagues the rambling, artistically irresponsible “Famine Affair,” in which an unnamed former lover is castigated as, among other things, a “childish demon.” In spite of his longstanding, insistent rejection of Catholicism, religious categories have a way of worming their way into Barnes’ writing; in spite of an attempted exorcism near the album’s end, in “You Do Mutilate?,” something remains that undermines his sense of self — as he says in “Touched Something’s Hollow” on Skeletal Lamping and, in a more concise turn of phrase on this album’s “Hydra Fancies”: “the comer is poisoned.”
He finds his clearest expression of the fragmented consciousness on two of the album’s most formally coherent pieces: “Coquet Coquette” and “Enemy Gene.” “Coquette” uses symmetry and repetition to emphasize the negative effects of contact with a strong spiritual presence: “You kissed me strange to prove you were mythical” becomes “You hurt me twice to prove you were cynical,” and, eventually “You made me cry to prove I was beautiful.” “You are the death, you are the pinnacle” finds its dour match at the end of the second verse: “My teenage lust for you is so pitiful.” And, in the final line of the chorus, Barnes offers somewhat of a summary of the entire relationship’s aftermath: “You give me emotional artifacts that can find no purchase.” This sense of victimization turns itself inside out in “Enemy Gene,” a song shot through with an awareness of the destructive power of love and desire, in which Barnes muses “How can we ever evolve/ When our gods are so primitive?” But the Apollonian desire for evolution keeps closing its eyes and giving in to lust, and that welcome blindness is where we find of Montreal at their most ecstatic.
“If I treated someone else the way I treat myself, I’d be in jail” —Kevin Barnes, “Girl Named Hello,” False Priest
In the final analysis, of Montreal represents a rare and comprehensive attainment of vitality in modern music. And although Priest features fewer moments of unhinged exhilaration than Skeletal Lamping and offers nothing in the way of an (admittedly sketchy) overarching character narrative like the one in Hissing Fauna, the fact of being tethered a little closer to the difficulties of the real world doesn’t make this newest release any less worthy of admiration. What links Barnes most closely to the R&B tradition is the fact that he wears his weaknesses on his sleeve, presenting them to his listeners like offerings, not by the light of some religious idea of redemption or even forgiveness, but in recognition of the sacred demands of art. He pours his whole self into his music, and the seeds of his intentions have a way of bringing forth life. New forms can’t germinate in a sealed-off womb; even if we incur guilt by airing out our sins, we must air them out anyway. Life has to breathe.