Avant-garde artists, and in particular musicians, have struggled to strike a balance between genius and pretentiousness for decades. From Lou Reed's infamous noise exploration Metal Machine Music to the Flaming Lips' Zaireeka, which required listeners to simultaneously play four separate CDs in four separate stereos, art rockers have always braved a backlash when they eschew broad appeal in pursuit of a singular (and usually bizarre) creative vision.
Such is the case with Skeletal Lamping, the ninth album from the Athens, Georgia, group Of Montreal. Charged with the daunting task of following up 2007's Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? — the band's most critically and commercially successful album to date — lead singer Kevin Barnes crafted fifteen songs that are all nearly unlistenable. A disjointed blend of funk, disco and porn grooves, the record is as tedious as it is bizarre.
Like the brief and woefully inadequate curator notes that accompany contemporary art exhibits, advance copies of the record feature a four-paragraph essay that takes a stab at dissecting the music. "The record has its own internal logic," the back album cover proclaims, "and its many tangents and detours feel entirely intuitive and organic in context." The essay continues: "[Skeletal Lamping] rejects the notion of a fixed identity and encourages the listener to embrace their contradictions and to accept that one's self is nebulous and mercurial." It even calls the album "bizarre, complicated and dense."
Reached in Asheville, North Carolina, the second stop on a short North American tour, Barnes maintains the essay isn't just PR-firm penned nonsense.
"[Lamping] made itself in that way," says Barnes, who wrote and composed every song on the album by himself. "It could be complicated because of the way it's shifting and changing. It never really stays one style for that long. You could call it fragmented or schizophrenic."
The music itself certainly fits that description. Lamping completely abandons traditional verse/chorus/verse songwriting; instead, each song is a patchwork of minute-long bursts of sound that change rhythm and melody without rhyme or reason. For instance, the song "And I've Seen a Bloody Shadow," opens with a Scissor Sisters-do-Elton John piano lick. A sudden time change and moaning synthesizers take over. Just as abruptly, layered vocals of Barnes bawling over a drum machine appear before a brief but catchy palm-muted guitar sequence. It fades out with droning vocals and the same minor-key guitar chord strummed over and over. The song is just two-and-a-half minutes long.
"[The album] doesn't follow any logical path. I wanted to create something full of surprises and unpredictable," Barnes says. "Pop music can be so predictable and a lot of people follow the 'rules' in a way that's not very creative or interesting. I did that a lot in the past and I kind of learned to break free from that."
Barnes' lyrics are as fragmented as his production style. Many of the songs are written from the perspective of a black transsexual man named Georgie Fruit, a Barnes-invented character who he says was once a member of a failed '70s glam-rock band.
"It sounds pretentious but I really feel it just happened, I didn't sit down for weeks and weeks and create a character," Barnes says with a faint Southern drawl. "This voice was just unlocked inside me, and I gave it a name. All of these songs were flowing out of me, I thought it was a foreign entity speaking, but I realized it was a different part of my psyche that was unlocked and speaking to the world."
The 35-year-old Barnes, who is happily married (to a woman), insists he has no problem writing sincere songs about the life of his alter ego.
"I don't make a division between me and Georgie Fruit," Barnes says. "In fact, I sort of regret creating a name for that creative spirit. It might make people feel like it's less genuine, like it's fiction. I want people to realize that it's genuine, and it's coming from the heart."
Lyrically, Barnes has always bared his soul, particularly on Hissing Fauna, where he often sang about a painful separation from his wife and his struggle with depression that followed. But where he was able to distill his neurosis on that album into catchy, three-minute pop songs with sing-along-friendly choruses about chemical imbalance, Lamping feels like a hackneyed attempt at sexually transgressive shock art. It's not just the Georgie Fruit songs, either — often speaking in bizarre abstractions, Barnes alludes to everything from blowjobs in the boys' locker room to a prostitute turning tricks on the hood of a car.
The album drips with crude sexual imagery. He opens the song "St. Exquisite's Affections" by bellowing in his eunuch-like falsetto, "I'm so sick of sucking the dick of this cold, cold city." Other times he sings, "I took her standing in the kitchen/Ass against the sink" and "We can do it softcore if you want/But you should know that I go both ways," and "I want to make you ejaculate till it's no longer fun."
Barnes, who recently told Spin, "For a while, I really wanted to be gay but it didn't work out for me," again maintains that earnestness is not an issue when it comes to writing songs about homosexual encounters.
"I don't make the division between physical reality or intellectual reality or fantasy or dream reality," Barnes says. "Just because you held a brick in your hand and threw it through a window, doesn't mean it doesn't have the same value as dreaming you held a brick in your hand and throwing it through the window. Everything I'm writing about, I might not have physically experienced it — but I did experience it."
While the songs on the album are the sole work of Barnes, he says his bandmates have been critical in translating the album's hypersexuality and out-there imagery into a dynamic live act. And thus far, sneak previews of the Skeletal Lamping tour have looked like a three-ring circus on acid. A recent New York show featured a nearly naked Barnes riding a live horse onto the stage at one point and emerging from a coffin slathered in shaving cream at another. Band members were dressed like cowboys, tigers and the mythical creature Pan.
Barnes, Of Montreal and their peers in Athens' famed Elephant 6 Recording Company have always experimented in the hope of stretching the boundaries of contemporary music. For a time Barnes even lived with Jeff Mangum, the singer/songwriter behind Neutral Milk Hotel. But while Mangum was able to craft the creatively brilliant album In the Aeroplane Over The Sea from a series of recurring dreams he had about Anne Frank, when Barnes attempts to channel his own strange inner voice and shed all the trappings of pop music in the process, the result isn't as transcendent.
"You just create what you feel compelled to create," Barnes says. "It's more fulfilling that way. I've never tried to create for an audience or demographic because that would just be...well...really weird."