Review Summary: As it turns out, cartwheeling off the edge of taste and reason was the best thing of Montreal could have done.
Around 2007, Kevin Barnes did an interview where he described his next record, Skeletal Lamping, to be "one long piece with hundreds of movements," with the intention of eschewing the more conventional arrangements of his past few albums. And while he was indeed describing one of his albums, he was mistaken about the name; Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse revels in a musical schizophrenia that Skeletal Lamping only dreamed of acheiving. I feel hesitant to even compare the two, because while the intention behind their conceptions were likely similar, one soars while the other falls flat on its face.
Coquelicot epitomizes of Montreal’s brand of storybook psychedelia that they developed in their first few albums. At 70 minutes, it is their longest, most diverse, and most ambitious project, and the closest thing to a double album statement in their discography. The album is bound by a loose concept revolving around a fairy creature that instills creativity and emotion in people by placing a bell in their hearts. Coquelicot, one of these creatures, decides to forsake her duty and become human, but instead of experiencing reality delves into a hallucinatory world of dreams and fantasy. Sounds absurd and kind of stupid, right? Fortunately, like many absurd album concepts (see: The Decemberists' The Hazards of Love), this one works much better in execution than description. Not to mention I wouldn't have known half of this had I not read the Wikipedia article for the album. Many of these conceptual ideas are hinted at either lyrically or musically, but the details would remain ambiguous without background knowledge, The concept is not so much a focus, but rather a vehicle for Barnes to expand the surreal quality of his lyrics with the justification that they occur within a dream.
Following in and expanding upon the sounds of The Gay Parade, the music is upbeat, almost twee, but with frequent and abrupt dips into madness. Think of the psychotic march "The March of the Gay Parade," but instead of condensing their insanity into a single song, they have spaced it out on Coquelicot. "Peacock Parasols" begins with particularly accentuated whimsy at an upbeat tempo, but after about a minute shifts suddenly to a funeral dirge, before shifting back to the original melody without any sort of warning or explanation. These departures and moments of psychedelic horror are not, however, unjustified. Unlike Skeletal Lamping, the music shift will often directly support the narrative. In this case, Barnes sings "that obscures the mad procession" and then immediately gives you an idea what this mad procession sounds like.
So while the sounds are often schizophrenic, the album never feels random. Even when the structure is not obvious, it's thereThe songs are often grounded in something, be it lyrics, repeated structured, or continued harmony or tempo throughout melodic shifts. "Penelope," for example, always returns to the same melody no matter how much it diverts from it. If not that, the album is arranged with incredible kaleidoscopic precision. Take the short, but wonderful "Go call You Mine," where in its short minute and a half span the instrument carrying the melody changes every single measure, so that a symphony's worth or orchestration is crammed within this tiny package without feeling bloated. The lightness and precision of this album are what make it so good; despite its weight it never feels heavy, but instead floats along the waves of dreams and fancy.
These lyrics are, like the music, are bizarre and often deceptively happy. The delivery is optimistic, sometimes uncomfortably so, but is tainted at the seams by anxiety, depression and uncertainty. The human emotions that Barnes has breathed into these fantastical creations is quite impressive and the antithetical nature of this creation gives it that much more impact, like the uncomfortable sorrow of a frown on a painted clown's face.
All of these elements fold together into something quite unique. They jumped over the tasteful limit of their sound, indulging in spoken words that sound like bizarre radio plays, 17 minute tracks of almost exclusive piano, frequent and drastic musical shifts, and an absurd concept, yet it still worked. This is enough to count the album impressive if not for the intrinsic quality of the songs themselves. For all its idiosyncrasies, it held together and as consequence we are left with this endlessly entertaining and sonically complex album. It's long, it's pretentious, but it works, and it works quite well.