Upon first listen for someone unfamiliar with Of Montreal’s music, it probably seems disorganized and neurotic, with its frequent mid-song tempo changes and front man Kevin Barnes’ often-bizarre lyricism. However, this is exactly what makes the band so unique, which to fans of their music, is also what makes them strangely wonderful.
The band is known for their raucous, over the top live shows, which Barnes himself has described as “hallucinatory” and “transportive”. Despite the often strange nature of their shows, anyone familiar with Barnes’ music who had never before seen the band live would be unlikely to be very surprised that the band’s shows are the way that they are.
With every album the group has come out with (an impressive 13 LPs in 18 years), there has always seemed to have been some sort of buzz from certain reviewers about how that particular album is the one in which Of Montreal finally stays within “familiar territory” and remains true to its “musical identity”. However what is unclear is what exactly that “musical identity” is.
Of Montreal is a band with many faces, some albums having more of an acoustic and folkly sound, while others are purely electric, those being just the most basic examples of the variation found within the band’s sound. What always seems to remain constant throughout the group’s entire discography, however, is Barnes’ sassy, yet velvety voice and singing style, going back and forth between heavily syncopated rhythms and smooth, slow choruses. On Aureate Gloom, the band’s most recent release, this and all of the band’s other well-known strengths are on full display, including Barnes’ frequent use of the three-part harmony and uncanny ability to change rhythms and keys mid-song without too much disconnect from the rest of the track, a songwriting technique for which Paul McCartney is often credited with pioneering (see the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” or Paul McCartney’s “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”).
Each album that Of Montreal has come out with has seemed to be a projection of Barnes’ emotional self at the time of its writing. This trend certainly continues with Aureate Gloom. Aureate, which according to Merriam Webster, refers to something that is “of a golden color or brilliance”, seems to be an on-point description of the album’s superficial aura. However, when one gives the album a second listen, paying closer attention to the lyrics in many of the songs, it becomes clear why the word “gloom” is an essential part of the album title. The incredible contrast, yet beautiful merging of these two words is best exemplified on the album’s third track, “Empyrean Abattoir”. It starts off with an apathetic, depressed-sounding Barnes lamenting about how “he’s been trying to quell his anger and not feel bitter about all the darkness you gave” then transforms into a rock ballad with Barnes angrily shouting that “I won’t even look around to look at your reaction now”. This ambiguous “you” often referred to throughout Of Montreal’s discography is seemingly the source of much of Barnes’ discontent. For those who are more familiar with the band, it seems likely that this “you” is referring to Barnes’ ex-wife, Nina Grøttland, with whom Barnes had recently separated.
Barnes is notorious for revealing details about his personal life in his music, though always in the most abstract, sugarcoated ways possible. What distinguishes this album from its predecessors is that it represents one of the first times that Barnes is explicit about it. Songs such as “Virgilian Lots” see Barnes finally being more forthright about his emotions, with him sweetly singing in the song’s chorus “I’m grieving for you, my love”.
It is precisely this newfound straightforwardness that distinguishes this album from Of Montreal’s earlier work. The new album’s quality in conjunction with the band’s signature elements of catchy melodies, pristine harmonies and unexpected mid-song mood and key changes make this a show any experimental-psychedelic-indie-pop fan is not going to want to miss.