Oh, Kevin Barnes. “Smoke hood! / Merlion! / Female erection,” he gleefully exclaims on rev-up “Like A Tourist.” The song comes from False Priest, the new LP by his — and it’s truly his, as it couldn’t be the product of any other twisted, drug-addled mind — band of Montreal.
The track’s random bursts of mytho-sexual fantasy followed by a falsetto-crooned intellectual proclamation “Youuuuu fetishize the archetype,” the gently rising, surprisingly delicate harmony of its chorus and the general unfamiliarity of its sound are all clear signs that of Montreal is back. And on False Priest, the band is in top form.
False Priest is the first of Montreal album to be recorded away from Barnes’s computer, in a real studio, and the difference is unmissable. With more live instruments than any of the group’s earlier records — including a surprising amount of gritty guitar, particularly grinding through the “Coquet Coquette” intro — it’s the most extroverted of Barnes’s work. Even moody “Casualty of You,” reaches a more mature level of emotional expression than anything on predecessors Skeletal Lamping or Hissing Fauna. It’s the methodical piano chords and creepily slippery strings that land the song.
That’s not to say of Montreal has fundamentally tampered with its synth-surrounded sound. The paranoid electronic whirring of the “Coquette” bridge holds up the love-life panic of Barnes’s words. Unanchored “Hydra Fancies” has enough artificial zonky machine meddling to give it the texture of over-processed whipped cream — a rare misstep caused by extra electronization. But out-of-this-world (thematically, and also awesomely) “Enemy Gene” sparkles with computerized twinkling and robotic-yet-emotional voicework from Barnes and visitor Janelle Monáe.
Not to discredit Barnes, whose cute and kinky style is of Montreal, but female guests Monáe and Solange Knowles help give False Priest a realism that the psychedelic frontman just can’t imitate.
Whereas of Montreal’s guest spot on “Make the Bus,” off Monáe’s debut The ArchAndroid, sounded like a complete creative takeover on Barnes’s part, Monáe didn’t go all-out vengeful on False Priest. Instead, she blends evenly with Barnes to create a genderless soulful wail that’s perfect for the extraterrestrial, post-hope dance-off “Enemy Gene.” Monáe could have gone further in her other appearance on “Our Riotous Defects.” Barnes kicks up the funk while wondering bewilderedly, “Whatever your eyes caught, I bought / Still we fought!” But with a negligible supply of Monáe’s Broadway belting, the track suffers ever so slightly from an excess of fluff.
Knowles grounds playful wet dream “Sex Karma,” bringing humanity to freak-on lines like “I know that you want to swing / Run and touch my everything / ’Cause I look like a playground to you.” What might have sounded like a lonely pedophile’s lament with one singer becomes a sort of joyous naptime romp with two.
But despite the buoyancy and bedroom surrealness of False Priest, of Montreal holds onto the lyrical dichotomy started back in its early days of asexual twee ditties. Many of the False Priest tracks deal with heartbreak or apocalypse, and Barnes is still “in a war with this suicidal depression” on closer “Do You Mutilate?”.
“Everybody’s searching for a cause / A reason to blow themselves up,” he intones in the album’s final minute, before a surprisingly directed condemnation of the too-religious. With every release, of Montreal seems to be getting more and more “out there.” It’s these moments of personal and wider insight that lets listeners know Barnes is for real, and as fantastical as of Montreal can sound, the trip’s going to end eventually.