Nineteen years ago, of Montreal released their debut album Cheery Peel, an endearing collection of lo-fi produced compositions comprised of an acoustic guitar, drums and Kevin Barnes’ unfettered vocals to introduce the ideals and personality of the band. The songs from this album are romantic and playful, ‘When You’re Loved Like You Are’ and ‘Tim I Wish You Were Born a Girl’ are the finest examples of the humour and sensitivity that captured the hearts of of Montreal fans. The universality to the lustfully longing lyrics (“I don’t know if it was chance or if it this happened by fate. I don’t expect you to feel the same but if you did, well that would be great”) and the unobtrusive natural of the music means that that album remains as relevant and resonating now as it was in 1997.
Ironically, of Montreal’s fourteenth and latest record, Innocence Reaches, is the closest the band have come to dancing with contemporary arrangements and approaches to composing music. This has glossed the songs with instantly dated sound and abrasive assaults to the senses. Barnes has said that he listened to a range of current music instead of trying to reclaim sounds synonymous with the past which he pleaded guilty of with previous albums. Strangely, it is the sounds of of Montreal’s past, notably The Sunlandic Twins era and even as recent as last year’s Aureate Gloom that are an obvious void in the latest endeavour, one that has been filled with an unstable bridge built from excessive genre experimentation.
of Montreal’s music is known for being chaotic and garish, however you can generally be assured to find at least three catchy songs on each record they release. Unfortunately, this theory does not extend fully to Innocence Reaches. Of course there are a handful of songs on the album that will hold your attention, such as the subtle madness of ‘chap pilot’, the closing track and the lounge-funk synth lines to the introduction of ‘ambassador bridge.’ The appeal of the latter wanes once Barnes’ vocal enters the equation, this happens frequently across the twelve tracks. You find yourself singling out particular elements or arrangements that redeem the otherwise wearing qualities of Barnes’ sceptical and sombre mood. Musically, there is so much happening in the 56 minute duration that you would be forgiven for forgetting the make up of certain songs, tracing their intent right to the resolve. Here lies the paradox of of Montreal, the obscurity of the music demands your attention and yet it is the same complexity of form that compromises the listeners ability to commit to the outlandish compositions.
Lyrically Innocence Reaches is a revealing and extremely personal record. Barnes’ songwriting expresses a resentful embitterment towards the break up of his marriage which can be traced in ‘my fair lady’ (“Because you’ve been so damaged, I have to give all the love that was meant for you to somebody else”), ‘les chants de maladoror’ (“I wonder if you’ll ever see yourself, it probably wouldn’t matter if you did cause you’re so degraded). These statements make for uncomfortable listening, especially when these aggressively desensitised sentiments are coupled with raucous pop influenced synths, drums and punchy bass lines. Themes of self-discovery and establishing an identity co-exist with heartbreak and the very first lines of Innocence Reaches opening track entitled, ‘let’s relate’ asks, “How do you identify?” and so ensues questions of gender and the breakdown of gendered conformities as explored on the record’s radio friendly lead single, ‘it’s different for girls.’
Every band is entitled to experiment with their music, expecting artists to continually recreate or refrain from deviating drastically from what defined a particular time in their discography would impede their maturing and innovation as musicians. This external expectation stunts the creativity to be enjoyed during the process of making music, which can manifest in immense levels of pressure, stress and disillusionment in the artist. In saying that, it would be nice if Barnes would revisit the uncomplicated compositions that he established his name with as a musician and the mastermind behind of Montreal, once again.