Music

Glitter and Gender Theory Help Kevin Barnes and Of Montreal Grow Up

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“Am I on the verge of a really big breakthrough or just another meltdown?” Of Montreal leader Kevin Barnes wonders on “Gratuitous Abysses,” a song from the band’s new album, Innocence Reaches. It’s hardly the first time he’s reached this crisis point, and it could be the defining question of his career: For over a decade, Barnes has been releasing painfully personal music, traipsing through genres on a journey of torturous self-discovery.

By 2005, Of Montreal were already a standout psych-pop band, their reputation built on a decade of concept records full of bizarre character studies. Then Barnes released The Sunlandic Twins, thirteen mostly self-recorded songs that confessed the ecstasy and terror of fusing your life with someone else’s — in this case, his then-wife, Nina’s. The seven albums since have all paired a new, high-concept aesthetic with lyrics that burrow deep into their creator’s conflicted psyche. Barnes’s restlessness has become a constant, hijacking genres and molding them into a language for describing his fluctuating emotional state. Now in his forties, he seems to grow more frank with each passing year.

Innocence follows two solid, if not especially challenging, site-specific nostalgia trips: 2013’s Lousy With Sylvianbriar, a Sixties folk-rock effort written amid the hippie detritus of San Francisco, and Aureate Gloom, last year’s tribute to CBGB-era New York. Now he’s tackling EDM, though as with the prior genre studies, Innocence doesn’t represent a complete transformation: Its synthesizers are still shot through with the beguiling melodic sense and dictionary-begging lyrics always characteristic of Barnes’s writing.

So the club beats on “Let’s Relate” and “A Sport and a Pastime” might put a new digital distance between the music and the words, but they don’t prevent Barnes from getting, as is his wont, messily personal. Indeed, at a solo show in New York this spring, he played stripped-down versions of a few Innocence tracks and confirmed they were about a suicidal ex-girlfriend. His portraits of her are withering: On “My Fair Lady,” he sings, “My lady’s back at home, cutting herself and sending me photographs…dismantling our love, killing it to please other people.”

Unafraid to needle others’ shortcomings, Barnes has also never cast himself as anyone’s savior. “You should call me sometime. I won’t answer, but at least I’ll know you care,” he mumbled on “Triphallus, to Punctuate!” from 2008’s fragmented Skeletal Lamping. Eight years later, further into “My Fair Lady,” he taunts his ex: “Because you’ve been so damaged, I have to give all the love that was meant for you to somebody else.”

This willingness to expose his own cruelty and debasement recalls French writers like Jean Genet, Georges Bataille, and Arthur Rimbaud — all of whom Barnes has referenced in song. Such openness is a form of transgression that Barnes also displays in the subversive gender politics that suffuse his work. Throughout his career, he’s reveled in burlesquing prescribed gender roles onstage by performing in various states of drag. On Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, his 2007 masterpiece, and Skeletal Lamping, he channeled an alter ego named Georgie Fruit, a black, transgender funk musician whose voice helped Barnes escape his own crises. Now, in an era too sensitive to appropriation for Georgie Fruit to fly, Barnes is cannily pointing out the absurdity of seeking liberation through rigid categorization. Innocence‘s “Let’s Relate” highlights the thin line between supporting nonbinary identities and fetishizing them: “Amalgam, I think that you’re great, let’s relate,” Barnes drones. The record’s lead single, “It’s Different for Girls,” commingles the essentialist sentiments suggested by the title with oversimplified feminist critiques until both dissolve into nonsense. It’s a bold stance for a cisgender man, but one that Barnes has been refining — in public — since today’s fluid college students were in elementary school.

Between this gender-theory provocation and the dance-music filter, Innocence is the most contemporary album Of Montreal have ever made. Previous records unfolded in a bygone idyll where psychedelics, glam-rock spectacle, and European intellectualism met, a vacation from the 21st century. The new aesthetic isn’t random: Barnes split with Nina for the last time, it seems, a few years ago, so the album coincides with his throwing himself into new relationships rather than clinging to an old (and, if the previous records are any indication, troubled) one. The vintage synthesizers still sound retro, but what we’re witnessing is Barnes finally waking up to the present. It makes the question of where he’ll go next more exciting — and more difficult — than ever before.

Of Montreal play Webster Hall on September 9 at 7 p.m.

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