No. 39: Of Montreal Get “Skeletal”

Dec 18th, 2008 // 27 Comments

Following the unexpected critical and commercial success of Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?, it seemed like Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes had painted himself into a corner. If critics had considered that album a breakthrough because of its juxtaposition of romantic dissolution and bouncy glam, he would either have to start talking about Serious Things and become a Serious Artist, completing the expected maturation, or pull back from the thematic brink to explore the maximalist glitter aesthetic that now pervaded his musical and visual gestures. Needless to say, he went with the latter.

“Id Engager”

The title of Skeletal Lamping referred to the process of self-exploration, but instead of mining his darker moments, Barnes decided to shine a light on the piece of his personality that considered itself to be a black transsexual named Georgie Fruit. Consequently, the lyrics addressed love, lust, and self-confidence, but in no less personal a style than Hissing Fauna. Where that album talked about his marital problems, “An Eluardian Instance,” one of Lamping‘s highlights, told the story of how Barnes and his wife met (the song’s original, and perhaps more charming, title was “Our Last Summer As Indies”).

Nevertheless, this turn away from Serious Themes lost him a certain amount of critical support, and it’s possible to see the album as a bit of a regression, especially since the music used the jump-cut, complex song structures that characterized his earlier work. In the end, though, this just made them one of the biggest Marmite bands of the year, with a divisive but thrilling album and a stage show (involving Barnes half-naked on a white horse) that seemed either awesome or hopelessly derivative. In 2008, Of Montreal became a hell of a band to argue about, and in a way, this just made them more fun.

“Id Engager” [YouTube]
Of Montreal [MySpace]
80 ’08 (and Heartbreak)

idolator

  1. sicksteanein

    This album and I had a rollercoaster ride this year. After loving Hissing Fauna like not many albums before it, I was seriously hyped for this one.

    The initial listens held a lot of disappointment as I grew impatient with parts I loved abruptly changing to parts that I only considered so so. Once I got familiar with it, I began to really enjoy it. But I grew tired of it rather quickly.

    However, after some time away, I’ve come back to it and found that the break has been good. Hissing Fauna is still the fave but this has its own insane charm, and seems like the perfect followup.

    It’s very similar to the experience I had with OK Computer/Kid A. Let’s hope it hold up like those two.

  2. SomeSound-MostlyFury

    I don’t think the discussion even needs to go as far as themes. This album just wasn’t very catchy. Hissing Fauna was. End of story.

  3. iantenna

    the concept of this album is completely fucked, and i refuse to even listen to it because of that. i’m sorry if you think i’m being overly pc here but the idea that a member of the most privileged group (heterosexual white male) in american society could even begin to capture what it’s like to be in what is surely one of the most oppressed groups (black transsexual) is offensive. if kevin barnes were a novelist rather than songwriter there would be an uproar, or rather, he wouldn’t even find a publisher ’cause noone would go near that shit with a 10 foot pole.

  4. Michaelangelo Matos

    Wouldn’t they? [www.amazon.com]

  5. Michaelangelo Matos

    As far as the “concept,” I was completely unaware of it until after my own review of the album ran. I just figured he was stretching out the Warholian glam superstar aspect he’s been building up over the last two albums; the songs are too fractured to really follow as a scenario, for me at least.

  6. iantenna

    @Michaelangelo Matos: ok fair enough. that still doesn’t get the bad taste out of my mouth though.

  7. janine

    I think this album’s spiritual brother is LoxeSexy (which I enjoy and many hate, and have good arguments). It’s not very hooky, either, like LoveSexy.

  8. MayhemintheHood

    I don’t listen to this band because I don’t like them, but what is the theme/concept of the album that iantenna is talking about? Is the album really about a black transsexual?

  9. Anonymous

    I have to strongly disagree with “SomeSound-MostlyFury” . I think Skeletal Lamping is obscenely catchy. There doesn’t seem to be a word more in tune with Skeletal than that.

  10. Christopher R. Weingarten

    Is this just a conversial post to get comments because this album is DAWWWWWWWWWWWWGSHIT

  11. Christopher R. Weingarten

    *controversial

  12. Anonymous

    The record is just way too all over the place, and couldn’t settle down and appreciate what it was working with- there’s just too much stuff packed into a song. Its like the last Destroyer record. You’ll be enjoying a part of a song, and then “CURVEBALL!” and the good will and momentum just vanish.

    As to the Georgie Fruit presence, he was there on Hissing Fauna too, and discussed this particular alter ego at length in an interview with Day Trotter before Hissing Fauna was released. Its there on Skeletal Lamping, but its not necessary to interpret and internalize the songs.

    @iantenna: This is fascism of the imagination- there’s no need to reject ideas because of a person’s race. That’s fucked.

  13. T'Challa

    “Skeletal Lamping” is just far too dense to be a crowd-pleaser. But I’ve found that over time, the sweet melodies and shifting rhythms reveal themselves to be quite enjoyable.

    And I know it’s a cop-out to pull the ‘acquired taste’ line, but as someone that LOVED “Hissing Fauna”, i had to give “Skeletal” a chance, and so far it’s paid off (and continues to do so). It was also nice hearing the new songs performed live; i definitely ‘get’ them more now.

    Ultimately, I can’t fault ol’ Kev for going off the rails and overloading this thing to the point of bursting. It happens to all prolific/tortured/talented artists at some point, especially once they receive a little credit in the straight world. And I can totally see him pulling a TVOTR and stripping down to the essence on his next album. I’m confident that a sleek, refined oM album would be amazing, like Prince’s “Kiss”. He’s got it in him, that’s for sure.

  14. T'Challa

    @Thesemodernsocks: The Destroyer analogy is perfect. After the genius of ‘Rubies,’ I just couldn’t get into the schizophrenia of ‘Trouble in a Dream.’

  15. Michaelangelo Matos

    OK, how many of the “it took a while to get into this album” crowd actually heard Of Montreal before The Sunlandic Twins? Because as Barthel notes in the post, this is what Barnes’s work was like ALL THE TIME before that.

  16. Anonymous

    @iantenna: My understanding was that he was drawing on the idea of alienation and otherness, from which you certainly don’t have to be black or transsexual to identify with, but that he is writing from a point of view, and writing a first person “I” that inevitably, the longer you write from a subjective “I” you start relating too. The idea that he understands and identifies with Georgie Fruit (who IS into that same music), as alienated and yet enabled and willing to celebrate and umm id engage, is entirely within his rights to claim as a creative, imaginative individual. I don’t think that you can listen to Skeletal Lamping and go, wow, this guy thinks he’s black, because the line is blurred, it doesn’t matter, but when he was writing, it did matter, or at least it helped. You may not buy that listening to Little Stevie helped him think about what its like to be blind and a child prodigy, but thats not the point. Skeletal Lamping is not a record about the “black experience,” but its about being a little crazy and a little fucked up (and to my ears over-stuffed and bloated), but and exists in a place where Georgie Fruit is totally at home.

    Its imagination, and license, and to bludgeon that- *BAD WHITE MAN*, I think, is a destructive impulse. Sometimes you gotta let yer freak flag fly, no matter how many squares you offend.

  17. Anonymous

    @Thesemodernsocks: But why does K. Barnes insist that this “alter ego” is “black,” then? I mean, WTF? It’s like he decided, ooooh, I’m going to be so “trangressive!” I understand where iantenna was coming from; Barnes brought this kind of reaction on himself.

  18. Anonymous

    @Thesemodernsocks:

    Oops, didn’t see these posts on the thread before I went off the first time.

    You’re still not getting it. The point is that, to many people, “alienation” and “otherness” are not things to “draw on” for “inspiration.” For many people, it’s how they have to live their life, and it’s damn hard, and it doesn’t help when some idiot is out there fetishizing what he thinks it’s like to be “different.”

  19. Lucas Jensen

    @Michaelangelo Matos: I think it’s closest analogue is definitely Coquelicot…

  20. Mike Barthel

    @iantenna: I don’t think anyone’s seriously taking him to be a spokesman for the transsexual community. If we’re being literal here, he’s not claiming to represent (or be writing from the perspective of) transsexuals, but people who have had three sex-change operations, who I do not think actually exist. (Though if they do, I of course honor their struggle.) Barnes is probably smart enough to have done this intentionally, so it was clear that he wasn’t trying to idealize actual human beings. I’m a straight white male, so of course I would say this, but I also tend to think that all art–all good art, anyway–is exploitative of someone somehow, and while you don’t have to be cool with that, if you’re cool with art, you’re cool with some degree of exploitation. The question then becomes whether the exploitation is more than minimal, and I’m just not convinced that this is the case here. But again, I wouldn’t be! Still, I think if we’re going to be weighing things, we should take into account the very, very pro-queer message the album gets across; Barnes has said that he hopes Lamping in particular encourages kids to be happy with what they are, gay or straight or (I suppose) transsexual, and the application of that standard cartoon morality to sexuality is explicit in the lyrics. I’m just saying: if you can come to terms with your problem with the concept, you’ll find an album which is more pro-queer than almost any other album I can think of this year.

  21. bcapirigi

    @Michaelangelo Matos: I always liked some individual songs–Don’t Ask Me To Explain, Happy Yellow Bumblebee, Tim I Wish You Were Born A Girl–but didn’t really like any of their albums as a whole until Aldhils Arboretum (featuring Jennifer Louise, which I think still might be their best song.) Then, for me at least, they went on a three-album streak of awesome.

    I only listened to this twice and hated almost every second of it. Since there have been Of Montreal albums like that before (ie. the Dustin Hoffman one) I figured those songs and my ears just weren’t meant to be together.

  22. sicksteanein

    If you guys don’t think an artist should not be permitted to empathize or take something that they have felt and try to expand that feeling through their art then you’re taking away some of the very core concepts of art.

    I’m sure Mr. Barnes has felt isolated at some time (we all have). Just because he doesn’t feel that way all the time like slowburn mentions doesn’t mean he shouldn;t be allowed to write about it.

    If you feel he doesn’t do a good job of capturing the experience, that’s one thing; to automatically hate the concept is quite another.

  23. RaptorAvatar

    I initially wasn’t a fan of this record (pressed for a rating I’d say 6/10 that could be edited into an 8.5/10 synapse blaster, but I don’t think I’m even close to unraveling it) but I’ve kept it around and it’s starting to grow on me. Plus, although Barnes does come off a little clueless in the interview, I think there’s a validity to what he’s going after. His work exists with a dichotomy between bouncy cartoonishness and genuine pain anyhow, so there’s a level on which it’s all at once unreal, hyperreal, and heavily transposable. The white privelege stuff is a good point as well, but I think that it’s far more about empathy than shock. Ideally, we’re feeling something for Georgie, not jeering at him (although there is a layer of cartoonishness to the whole enterprise) and I think that anyone trying to get people to broaden their sympathies (even if it’s as hugely awkward as this record is in places) doesn’t deserve to be given too much shit for it. However, maybe I (the white dude who is currently otherwise engaged in writing a movie about black gangsters)am totally wrong and will soon be joining Barnes in inauthentic PC jail for daring to overstep the innate constraints of my honkiness where we will be joined by Cormac McCarthy (who has never sojourned an apocalypse-scorched United States with his son in tow).

  24. Michaelangelo Matos

    @scott pgwp: You’re right, not all of it sounds, per se, like this. And I’m referring mostly to a longstanding habit of fragmented song structures, more so than a particular sound. As Lucas points out, Coquelicot is a good example.

    @bcapirigi: Do you mean Aldhis-Satanic Panic-Sunlandic as your three-album streak? Just curious.

  25. iantenna

    @Thesemodernsocks: i’m not rejecting it because of his race, i’m rejecting it because of the offensively presumptive nature of the whole thing. from a pitchfork interview of mr. barnes:

    “It’s funny, because I’ve created a back story for this character. The character’s name is Georgie Fruit, and he’s in his late forties, a black man who has been through multiple sex changes. He’s been a man and a woman, and then back to a man. He’s been to prison a couple of times. In the 70s he was in a band called Arousal, a funk rock band sort of like the Ohio Players. Then he went through a few different phases. It’s funny, because, in my mind, when I think about this character, he’s so far removed from my personal experiences. But I can somehow identify with this character really well. I think that because I’m so into Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, and Isaac Hayes and all of those people.”

    because he’s into black music he can relate to, and write as, a black transsexual? i’m sorry, no. this is bullshit. i’m not saying that you should never try to capture something that’s not completely personal in a song, your personal experience and knowledge can certainly allow you to inhabit other characters. but what personal experience and knowledge is he drawing from here, he likes to dress crazy and listens to some good records? fuck that.

  26. scott pgwp

    @Michaelangelo Matos: I have Satanic Panic and Cherry Peel, and neither are remotely similar to Skeletal Lamping.

  27. Anonymous

    I never really listened to Of Montreal before this album. Hissing Fauna is amazing, but this album is what got me in to them and I really love it. I have gone back and listened to all of them now and Hissing Fauna aside, I do not really like any of the others. Songs yes, but the complete albums I think are kind of weak for my taste.
    And as far as Skeletal Lamping being far too dense to be a crowd-pleaser, the crowd I was in last week was pretty goddamn pleased. One of the best live bands ever, I would say.

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