Review Summary: Musical docent Kevin Barnes continues his plunge into the Eighties with his most pointed foray into synthpop, disco and Paisley Underground psychedelia.
A long time ago, on a record label far, far away, Kevin Barnes sang songs about flying nuns and other such bull***. An ardent disciple of the Lennon-McCartney process, he rocked mad Daevid Allen whimsy, worshiped Wilsonian harmonies and probably adored the overbearing Englishness of Davies and Davies a little too much. Barnes was at the forefront of the independent psychedelic pop revival, kin to the Elephant Six family and fond of recording sugary concept albums for a faerie ‘n’ fay crowd with such a pop sweet tooth appetite that their dentists wrote mildly stern letters of concern to Emperor Norton Records.
Those days have long since passed. Today, Barnes is on a whole other musical route. Daevid Allen has been usurped by David Bowie, the Davies boys replaced by the Soft Boys. Like his previous two releases, Satanic Panic in the Attic
and The Sunlandic Twins
, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?
finds Barnes alone, leaning heavily on synthpop banality dressed in just enough paisley to warrant existence. Today, Barnes strokes the flame of a burnt out Eighties dance party, tip-toes across jagged, post-punk angularity and finds his muse in scenester dramas.
Now, if you’ve been hauling through since those days of four-track odes to Dustin Hoffman, it’s probably been pretty tempting to squawk “sell-out!” from the rafters. Not only has Barnes completely shifted his game over the course of the past few years, he’s gone over the commercial edge, hocking his wares off for Outback Steakhouse and NASDAQ adverts. But it would be a lot easier to burn the guy at the stake if he wasn’t still capable of such sickly tart pop delight. Despite the sonic about face, Barnes remains armed with an imaginative sense of harmony and a certain outlandishly garish grip on pop song craft. In the pre-Satanic
era this meant twee-as-*** song cycle sing-a-longs about fantastical creatures; latter day Barnes employs his skills in the pursuit of motorik pop cyclones like the 12 minute “The Past is a Grotesque Animal,” and other still saccharine, jive-ass indie disco spasms.
Oddly, under this seemingly insincere veneer, Barnes also finds a backdrop for the most personal lyrics of his career. Arguably prone to keeping reality at a pyschotropic, allegoric distance, Barnes tackles reality without insecurity throughout the album, touching on everything from his marriage to reclusive self-medication to awkward Athenian courtship rituals. The infective rhythm of “Gronlandic Edit” is perhaps the best example; the picturesque three-minute pop tune built on Barnes’ fabled multi-tracked self-harmonizing delves deep into his personal anxieties, his lack of faith and even the questions of creative sincerity. “All the party people dancing for the indie star,” Barnes sings over the rigid handclaps, “he’s the worst faker by far.”
But the key appeal of Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?
is not sincerity or lyricism, it’s the glossy mutant groove. And when the album loses the plot in a bog of prickly Prince falsettos and overwrought East Bay funk, one ought not hesitate to hit that skip button. Just goes to show that Of Montreal, whether doting on their indie roots or creating dance pop tizzies, gravitates towards a gaudy kind of magnetism. It’s forgivable because in the end, Hissing Fauna
proves itself a glittery slice of contagious queer pomp that’ll make anyone with a hint of soul power concede to the dance floor.