Obviously, TMT let a lot of time go by before getting around to reviewing one of the most important releases of 2007. There’s no special reason for this, beyond the boring business of promos getting lost in the shuffle — we weren’t sitting on our hands waiting to write the mother of all Hissing Fauna reviews. But as it turns out, the time between the album’s release and this review has been nothing but beneficial.
It took me a few months to get into Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?. As you may have heard in, oh, every other review published within the last four months, it’s a huge departure from everything that came before it. For the first few weeks, I couldn’t get past the weird pseudo-funk lyrics on the second half of the album. Was Kevin Barnes kidding on “Bunny Ain’t No Kind of Rider” with this, “You’re just some faggy girl/ And I need a lover with soul power” bullshit? Did I hear the words “booty patrol” on “Labyrinthine Pomp”? It seemed like a pose, and a really stupid, transparent one, at that.
As it turns out, it was a pose, in the best possible sense of the word. Oscar Wilde, who has never been wrong, famously said, “The first duty in life is to assume a pose.” The point is to be conscious of the artifice you’re building. No doubt partially inspired (as Of Montreal’s live show is as well) by David Bowie’s phenomenally rational assumption of the Ziggy Stardust persona, Barnes took on the identity of Georgie Fruit, a black transsexual and over-the-top ’70s funk scenester. He spends the first half of the album trying to transform into her, and when he finally does it, well, the booty patrol comes with the territory.
Following The Sunlandic Twins’ trajectory, the first six songs of the album are bigger and more perfect pop songs than Of Montreal have ever produced. Focusing on the depression that set in as Barnes fell apart, these are unique for both their upbeat melodies and psychological frankness. Unlike, say, The Cure’s Disintegration, which I may have worn out from overuse after one particular high school break-up, the narrator of these songs is wallowing in his misery while at the same time trying to claw (or dance) his way out of it. What makes these songs so positively delicious, in the same way that going on a bender can be a welcome alternative to crying into a pillow, is that Barnes realizes how seductive misery can be. From the beginning, he’s including the listener in the vicissitudes of his angst. The album’s first lyrics, on “Suffer for Fashion,” are, “We just want to emote till we’re dead.” Who’s “we”? You. Me. Everyone in the audience. “Let’s all melt down together,” he suggests. He knows that we enjoy this kind of shit in the same sick way he does.
“Heimsdalegate Like a Promethian Curse” is the high point of this collective grieving, both the catchiest song on Hissing Fauna and the most confessional. It plays like a jacked-up jump-rope rhyme, recounting Barnes’ battle with his own brain chemistry. This one hits home, because anyone who’s at all complex has been there, wanting with every ounce of our consciousness to be okay but just getting stuck in the same destructive thought cycles. “Chemicals, don’t flatten my mind,” he begs, “Chemicals, don’t mess me up this time/ You know you bait me way more than you should/ And it’s just like you to hurt me when I’m feeling good.” Here’s the real stuff of neurosis — when outside factors fade into the background and the real battle between self and serotonin begins. Of Montreal could certainly be accused of titling their songs incomprehensibly, but there’s no doubt where the allusion to a “Promethian curse” is coming from.
The first hint of a transformation appears on “A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger,” a swirling, danceable tune that covers much of the same ground as “Heimsdalegate.” Towards the end of the song Barnes sings, “I spent the winter with my nose buried in a book/ Trying to restructure my character/ Because it had become vile to its creator.” At this moment, we get a glimpse of what’s to come — the assumption of a pose. The Georgie Fruit character is the singer’s way of sublimating his own demons. He doesn’t simply snap out of his funk, he consciously embraces an entirely different sort of funk. Next, the 12-minute exorcism “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal” (a song that had to grow on me for a few months) plays like a long night of fever-dream conversations with a lost love, in which Barnes’ only consolation is the ability to control the event’s portrayal: “At least I author my own disaster.” By the end of the song, the listener is almost as exhausted from the struggle as the singer.
Becoming Georgie Fruit provides the ultimate distraction from a shattered personal life. It isn’t quite that Barnes has healed himself by embracing a swishy demeanor and simultaneously anachronous and fey jargon, or even by giving over to sex-soaked backbeats that pick up where Prince left off in the '80s. Rather, as he intimates in “Kongsvinger,” he’s scrapped his own character for a less complicated one. Introspection gives way to the comically self-aggrandizing lyrics of “Labyrinthine Pomp” and gossipy retellings of dance floor rejections in both “Bunny Ain’t No Kind of Rider” and “She’s a Rejector.” Sure, that “my body is an earthquake” line from “Faberge Falls for Shuggie” is silly. That’s the point. Once you go too deep into your own psyche, clinging to the artificial is the only way to regain a semblance of sanity.
Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? chronicles the moment of transition that we all arrive at some time, albeit in exponentially less dramatic ways. Frustrated by the choices we’ve made, limited by our own personalities, we begin tweaking our own identity to regain the illusion of control. Not only have Of Montreal created the perfect allegory for this kind of crisis, they have done so against the backdrop of pop and funk songs so perfect that they ought to become classics. One can only imagine the effects on lovelorn teenagers everywhere.