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Of Montreal
Innocence Reaches Tara Joshi , August 22nd, 2016 08:25

“Other people’s suffering is so boring”, says Kevin Barnes in blasé tones at one point during of Montreal’s latest offering. But the gross reality of Innocence Reaches is that exactly the opposite is true: while musically things stretch into strange and disparate places, it remains a consistency with of Montreal’s oeuvre that Barnes’ lyrics are at their most fascinating when based in the bare bones of his own tumultuous reality – though, that isn’t to say the doors aren’t wide open for gratuitous self-indulgence.

For the past 12 years, Barnes’ relationship with Nina Grøttland (his now-ex-wife) has played at least some part in of Montreal’s best lyrical content. Perhaps most notably on this front, there was the bittersweet estrangement that underpinned 2007’s outstanding Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?, and - in the midst of their ultimate separation - 2015’s sometimes surprisingly affecting Aureate Gloom.

And so Innocence Reaches is ostensibly the record that deals with the aftermath of Barnes’ divorce – and, when it does, it can be quite poignant. It sees Barnes out on the town and having a good time, meeting other women - Sarah and Gabrielle - but ultimately still not quite coping with an underlying sadness (“I hope you realise that I could never hate you”, he says on ‘def pacts’). It’s maybe partly that conflict that makes this such a difficult album to get a grip on – as though Barnes isn’t really sure what he’s trying to say or do, and nor is the album.

“How do you identify?” is the opening question posed by first track ‘let’s relate’. It’s a valid question when considering the band’s music – whereas once they might have fit quite neatly into the “psychpop” end of indie, it’s become increasingly difficult over recent years to specify what kind of music of Montreal make. This record exemplifies that, with the aforementioned opening track essentially an EDM-banger in stark contrast with saxophones that bring to mind Blackstar on ‘my fair lady’, or the build-up of riffs that wouldn’t sound amiss on Marquee Moon on the second half of ‘les chants de maldoror’. Then there’s the quasi-country twang on ‘chaos arpeggiating’ and the more standard ilk of funky, woozy pop on tracks like ‘gratuitous abysses’.

While there’s not necessarily anything wrong with jumping around so much stylistically, it can be exhausting to listen to. The baroque showiness of their former successes maybe makes it easy for them to overlook, but of Montreal would do well to remember that sometimes less really is more.

Even returning to lyrics, Barnes isn’t content to simply pick apart the threads of his relationships, instead choosing to tackle topics du jour like gender binaries. Theoretically this should be a good thing: there’s a lot to be said for how Barnes and co ought to be one of the most well equipped indie bands out there when it comes to such topics, given Barnes’ long-standing penchant for dressing in drag (not to mention, of course, his alter-ego Georgie Fruit, a middle-aged black man who has been through multiple sex changes).

Surprisingly though, when directly addressing concepts of gender, things fail to land. For all the delightfully sparkly, funky pop, ‘it’s different for girls’ feels strikingly shallow, contrived and, frankly, a bit embarrassing. “From when they are children, they're depersonalised, aggressively objectified” he laments, before later throwing out patronising stereotypes like: “Sometimes they act crazy, but that doesn't define them”. Perhaps he’s being purposefully conflicting, but this seems self-indulgent: it just doesn’t feel like this is his battle.

Barnes is far more affecting (and sympathetic) when at his simplest - on ‘def pacts’ when he serenely pleads: “Won’t you be good to me, won’t you be fair? Won’t you be sweet, won’t you always be there?”.Other people’s suffering isn’t boring – in fact, it’s one of the few things that makes Barnes relatable, in the midst of all his exuberant musical experiments and sometimes-unnecessarily conflicting lyricism.

Innocence Reaches is by no means a bad album. There are some genuinely fun, compelling moments of music, some striking lyrics, and the smattering of modern electronic dance sounds definitely livens things up. But at an hour long, it feels too convoluted: lacking in cohesion and, ultimately, too devoid of specific intent.

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