It was the sales pitch of the year: for of Montreal’s next album, Skeletal Lamping, Kevin Barnes would be eschewing traditional songcraft, instead of utilizing dozens of short, interlocked musical pieces. It sounded bold, audacious, and most of all, the logical next step for a band as scatterbrained as Of Montreal. When the track listing was announced this summer, I was disappointed to see that it included fifteen standard-length tracks; our hopes of a most innovative record had seemingly been dashed. But from the very first listen, it is clear that this is no ordinary record after all.
As it turns out, Barnes wasn’t kidding with his insane scheme after all. The track listing may read fifteen songs, but many “songs” are loosely-connected fragments; in other words, some are meticulously sequenced, while others are apparently thrown together at random. This leads to the first problem of the record. On average, an Of Montreal record breaks down to being 50% brilliant, 30% pretty good, and 20% average to awful. On previous records (most notably The Sunlandic Twins) it became easy to discern the duds from the keepers, making it easy to skip to the highlights. Skeletal Lamping breaks down the same way, only the 50/30/20 ratio often takes place within a single song. The first minute of album opener “Nonpareil of Favor” centers on a catchy piano part, only to descend into a brief booty-call interlude, before finally plunging into four minutes of white noise. In such chaos, when a shade of a traditional chorus does come through, it becomes a highlight almost by default: “For Our Elegant Caste” and “Triphallus”, to Punctuate!” are among the few songs that stick to a relatively linear format. Basically, if you’re going to try to appreciate the album, you need to swallow it in a single dose, which can be exhausting and overwhelming, considering you are taxed with a barrage of images and sound from start to finish.
The album focuses around Georgie Fruit, Kevin Barnes’ glam-rock “black shemale” alter ego who was unleashed during the second half of last year’s Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? As a result, the album is full of sexually explicit imagery, by turns amusing and stomach-churning (to wit: Barnes wants to make you ejaculate all day). Pansexual romps abound, ranging from the mythological (such as the figures on the front cover) to the teenaged (“He f***ed your sister in an elevator junior year”).
With Georgie Fruit running rampant, Skeletal Lamping raises a very important question: has Kevin Barnes finally gone off the deep end altogether? A key clue comes in “Touched Something’s Hollow”, which possibly has him removing the Fruit mask to ask that very question of himself: “Why am I so damaged/Why am I so troubled/I don’t know how long I can hold on if it’s going to be like this forever.” An intriguing thought from the artist himself (then again, it could very well simply be Georgie in a brief moment of self-reflection): imagine if your mind worked like this album. I would imagine this to be a fairly accurate representation of attention-deficit disorder.
One of the great cliches in music criticism is the term, “repeated listening.” Over time, parts of Skeletal Lamping congeal together to form unlikely but effective transitions and thematic threads, while other portions remain elusive to the point of making me want to tear my hair out. There may yet be brilliance hidden at the core of the record, but the whole damn thing reeks of missed opportunity. Yes, if Barnes had taken the best 50% of the segments and turned each into its own, straightforward, Satanic Panic-style pop song, Skeletal Lamping would probably be a much better album. The band may have succeeded in abandoning traditional song assemblage, but in the process, they’ve left a gaping hole at the center. We should have been careful what we wished for.