Just one night after Madonna enraged Billboard Music Awards viewers with an anemic rendition of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” Kevin Barnes demonstrated precisely what it takes to cover that particular Prince song. A voice as rich as Sinéad O’Connor’s helps, certainly. But it’s absolutely crucial that the singer be — or at least sound — heartbroken. More important than hitting the high note in “nothing” is making the quiver that creeps in at “to you,” a moment later, feel genuine.
In a rare solo date at Le Poisson Rouge, Barnes nailed it, which makes total sense: As frontman and songwriter of Athens, Georgia’s of Montreal, he’s made a specialty of capturing emotional distress in honest, excruciating, and sometimes ecstatic detail. The band’s two-decade, thirteen-album career has chronicled a roller coaster of marital reveries and rifts and reconciliations that ended in Barnes’s separation from his wife a few years back, with every peak and valley immortalized in hyperliterate songs that evolved from psych-pop to funk to the Seventies New York art-punk of last year’s Aureate Gloom.
The poet laureate of self-scrutiny took the stage Monday in a glam-rock casual costume of pink blazer and ruffle-neck shirt, a guitar slung around his neck and a curtain of hair falling rakishly over his right eye. Barnes’s look referenced Rimbaud as much as Prince, which seemed appropriate for a set that also featured a brief poetry reading. His delicate performance of “Nothing Compares 2 U” anchored a piano interlude midway through the 75-minute show, and he prefaced it with the rueful observation that “the cool thing is, [Prince] lives on CNN now.”
It was neither Barnes’s darkest joke nor his most devastating song of the night. (“Nothing Compares” wasn’t even his only cover of a beloved, recently deceased artist; he also played David Bowie’s “Hang On to Yourself,” an inspired choice for acoustic guitar.) Those moments were reserved for the new material that dominated the set. In a pair of coruscating compositions that Barnes intimated we’d hear on the next of Montreal album, due out in August or September, he addressed a recent ex-girlfriend. “It’s cool to date a suicidal person,” he said, “because it takes the pressure off. You don’t have to think about long-term plans.”
The song that followed defused any offense his alarmingly flip comment might have caused. “My lady’s back at home, cutting herself and sending me photographs,” Barnes sang in a monotone that sounded more depleted than apathetic. His second missive to the suicidal woman, a piano ballad, oscillated between callousness (“You can’t really martyr yourself when no one gives a fuck”) and tender longing. “Won’t you always be there?” he belted in the chorus, really earning the show’s cabaret setting. “I almost cried,” he admitted when it was over.
Barnes complemented his psychoanalysis of his ex with a handful of beloved tracks from of Montreal’s 2007 album, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? — a masterpiece that elevated a breakup and its ensuing breakdown into a stunning personal metamorphosis. His spare, slowed-down arrangements of upbeat depression anthems like “Gronlandic Edit” and “Suffer for Fashion” emphasized the pain recorded in those songs’ lyrics, a reminder that Barnes is at least as cutting an observer of his own fluctuating mental state as he is of anyone else’s. That emotional acuity — not riding a white horse through Roseland Ballroom or getting naked onstage — is what makes him such a captivating performer and songwriter.
Last night’s Hissing Fauna selections were so utterly altered from their original versions that it seems impossible to tell what of Montreal’s promising new songs will sound like in their final, full-band form. But considering that real-life turmoil has always been an essential ingredient in Barnes’s recipe for poignant pop, there’s certainly reason to be hopeful.