Oslo in Drag

January 3, 2008 at 8:28 am (Music)

You should buy this! Or illegally download it and buy it if you like it when supporting the band on tour eventually so they get more profit!

Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?

This is an album by Of Montreal, and is likely available at the nearest Best Buy. If I was inclined towards list making, this would be my favorite album of 2007, but I’m not so it isn’t.

Battles’ Mirrored would be number two, in case you’re wondering.

This is an album first, and a collection of songs second. Of Montreal has always focused on the end product of a release, its aesthetics and packaging, but it has never coalesced into this:

They normally look like this

or this

David Barnes’ characters look so quirky and thier placement is so universal in an Of Montreal product that their absence is audacious.

After opening up the album, which must be done by removing it from a plastic slipcase and unfolding its four corners, a bright, vibrant pattern awaits within. Unlike David Barnes’ (the lead singer/songwriter’s brother) other album art, focusing on individuals and characters, there is only intricacy and sophistry to be found here, a fitting introduction for Of Montreal’s most personal album yet. Islam promoted the potency of iconoclasm in religion and it rears its introspective head here dutifully.

Each track makes a surprisingly liberal usage of the first person pronoun for Kevin Barnes. Gone are whimsical trysts with darkness like The Sunlandic Twins’ “I Was Never Young,” and in are catabases like “The Past is a Grotesque Animal.” The line between narrator and singer’s emotions blur continually here, shifting from the blatantly autobiographical “A Song of Sorts in Kongsvinger,” to the more self contained emotional screech, “She’s a Rejector.” Although not all the song’s narrators are Barnes, it is a horrific thing to hear the same singer responsible for Twee Pop masterpieces like The Gay Parade and Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies calmly sing “I spent the winter on the verge of a total breakdown while living in Norway.” That line gets me every time.

Despite its constant underlying emotion, this is not a lugubrious album content with amateur emoting. On the contrary, most tracks bounce with energy and groovy bass lines, but instead of a pleasant walk holding the hand of a cute third date (ther first two went well and ended with a goodnight kiss), the joy here is manic, wildly shifting between passionate and apathetic. Nowhere is the bipolarity more lucid than when a major scale is played on top of a simple beat and Barnes croons for the mood shift from drugs. If you listen casually, you might get the idea the album’s a fun time for all involved instead of desperately needed catharsis.

Listening superficially would diminish some of the album’s charms, though. Barnes knows how to overdub his voice onto a song as well as Freddie Mercury and Zach Condon, and even shifts his studio trickery to the forefront in “A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger,” interrupting his own voice with a streaming brook of harmonizing leading into each chorus. Some are much more subtle, coloring words in songs with a light touch.

Although the album is drenched in Barnes’ voice, both authorial and literal, the single control never strangles the music: He knows how to make a party track just as well, even offering a mainstream track in “Gronlandic Edit” with just a bass line and beat propelling the song. When performing the song live, he gives his best Britney Spears impression with great big eyes and very little clothing offered to the audience. Yes, those are pantyhose and that shirt is even painted-on denim or spandex.

Also, he got up on stilts when performing the song in the Spring tour. Their live shows are ludicrous reinventions of their songs.

And that’s really what this album is all about; reinvention, of both the self and foreign elements. Barnes’ narrators “restructure” their character in Norway, reinvent their love for a girl who appreciates George Bataille from an amorous affair into an obsession, and demand why a friendship eroded. Besides themes about self constructed emotions (well, they all are, but none evince their solipsistic nature so clearly as these), the songs themselves jaunt around from trope to trope. “She’s a Rejector” bangs with power chords, “The Past is a Grotesque Animal,” assumes an extended length and guitar solo despite making no other concessions to an extended length, sounding just like a regular song happening to last for twelve minutes. Other songs jut around by introducing a decidedly not Of Montreal effect into their songs. The self is defined here by blatantly showing what is not, by showing Barnes’ style in motion when he picks up an object and fiddles with it. But depression is never cured by playing with newfangled toys, and it takes an album to prove it.

Coincidentally, they do some of the best covers, too, let me tell ya. Just check out their prolific youtube live videos.

The style returns by the end of the album, too, with the song “We Were Born Mutants Again with the Leafing.” The effervescent streams of melody have returned, as has his faith in humanity and himself.

More than his previous albums, collections of singles offering themselves into the world, this is a box to unlock. The album does not open easily like The Sunlandic Twins, whose bonus CD would almost always fall from its precarious position into the lap of whoever opened it excitedly: Hissing Fauna needs to be removed from a plastic slipcase, carefully unfurled, and even then its songs are not as earnest as before. Some mental unpacking is necessary, too, but even that leads to false narrators, too. Where is Barnes (well, we find Barnes in Of Montreal after the band less its bass player amicably broke up, but that’s another barrier to the self) under all of this?

I am ashamed to say that I cannot find him, but only his identities assumed as he worked through a difficult period in his life. The collection of the album’s disparate narrators trace Barnes’ path through depression into eventual acceptance. He gets the girl for whom he pined “The Past,” but this is a different fiction from that one where a break up leads the other to insanity, this is one where a couple actually meets each other in seclusion, one without a bunko crazy narrator screaming about a mousy girl screaming “violence” who dodges “lamps and vegetables.” This is a happily ending fiction, maybe even the reality.

Then again, aren’t all these songs fictions, regardless? Just emotions stretched into narratives? “Suffer for Fashion” describes a narrator wanting to keep going at 130 BPM forever. “Gronlandic Edit” has a similarly single minded narrator satisfied hiding in his friend’s apartment. All songs are a thought enshrined into a poem, elaborated by a story. They hint at an eternal desire, when transience is clearly chronic. The singer in “Gronlandic Edit” satisfied in an apartment is not the same as the one in “Suffer For Fashion” wanting a fast pace in his life, a lover to call him to say that he is missed. Here reality is fraught with delusion and fantasy, as full of imagination as those driving a fiction. Even if these songs are real, I can’t sincerely believe that they are reality.

All in all, what do we have here? Electronic ex-Twee Pop trussed up by Barnes’ masterful overdubbing and one of the most addictive albums of the year. Although I’d like to say that I can’t wait for his next album after he’s emotionally resolved himself, I can’t. The beauty hinges on the movement of Barnes through his soliloquies and style, and I doubt that this marathon could be repeated by any but the most athletic of musicians. If anyone’s up to it, it’s Barnes, but this is truly an unlikely concinnity.

Next: My favorite movie, but don’t worry- this blog is not called Sentimentality & Circumstance for a reason. It’s even a shorter post than the others I’ve posted lately, in case my verbiage is annoying you.

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