“White Is Relic/Irrealis Mood” is spotted with moments of lyrical efficacy and snappy synths but finds itself burdened by bloated track lengths.
The indie rock band of Montreal has been going 21 years strong under the direction of frontman Kevin Barnes. Barnes’s last decade of musical releases has found him oscillating between obscure muses and shifting genre between each album, and Barnes’s newest release, “White Is Relic/Irrealis Mood,” is no break from this trend.
Forming in Athens, Georgia, in 1996, the band found inspiration from psychedelic pop music of the 1960s. Early band members tapped in and out of performing and recording for the band frequently, leaving Barnes alone to spearhead the writing and producing of the band’s music. Their works spanning into the early 2000s generally have a sunny disposition with minimal instrumental layering and a lower production quality. Into the mid-2000s, Barnes began experimenting with complicated musical layering and increasingly unusual lyrical structures, both of which are now staples of the band’s otherwise unpredictable discography.
Barnes has yet to divorce himself entirely from his psychedelic pop roots, but he removed himself considerably from the sound of his early works with his 2007 breakout release, “Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?” Following a temporary separation from his wife, the work that Barnes was producing grew lyrically dark and drew inspiration by the then blooming revival of electronica music in popular media. At that point, Barnes had broken his original formula of melodic pop songs and developed a new sort of anti-pattern: every album completely divorced from the others in sonic and lyrical quality.
Though under Barnes’s control since its conception, of Montreal has increasingly become a vehicle for Barnes’s own often bizarre, musical imaginings over the last decade. This means that lyrics are often borderline nonsensical — at least to the audience. It seems that Barnes himself is the only one in on the joke. It also means that Barnes is wont to prolong songs to build up intricate musical compositions.
And these are the exact pitfalls that “White Is Relic/Irrealis Mood” fall into. With each of its six tracks spanning over five minutes and two of those breaching the eight-minute mark, the album often slips into over-relying on a single, extended melody that can quickly become grating. This problem is especially evident on “Writing the Circles/Orgone Tropics,” in which the first four minutes rely on a somewhat bare-bones drum and bass instrumentation backing a hazy, reverberated female vocalist repeating the song’s hook of “Not a lot.” The complexity of the instrumentation increases as the song progresses, especially during the chorus, but not enough to completely break up the monotony.
This isn’t to say that the song isn’t lyrically interesting or that it doesn’t sound good, but it does definitely showcase the fact that the longer the songs go on the harder they are to listen to. Most melodies overstay their welcome by a minute or so, and this would be a real problem for someone who’s not a fan of the ‘80s extended dance mixes from which Barnes drew the album’s inspiration. The track lengths seem overlong just to fit in the format of Barnes’s decades-dated muse.
Barnes’s lyrical approach is hit-and-miss, though it’s more or less to be expected from him at this point: his entire discography is leaden with esoteric references mixed with his own life experiences and grammatical complications. One of the worst lyrical offenders off this newest album is the chorus of the album’s opening track, “Soft Music/Juno Portraits of the Jovian Sky.”
The opening lyrics of the track are about “trawling” through DMs and “wasting weekends,” which is all pretty standard fare for an EDM track like “Soft Music.” The chorus then starts up and lyrically combines gentrification, “summer love,” The Bushwick Collective of street art in New York and trying to stop “the triggering of one’s self-destructive urges” within just six lines. If it sounds incomprehensible, it’s because it kind of is. The track is ostensibly about white ignorance in relation to the ostracizing and gentrification of black culture; but that’s a pretty big concept to fit into the chorus of a dance song, especially when the surrounding verses don’t seem at all related to the subject matter. As is, the lyrics aren’t particularly catchy and slow down the song, and the song isn’t an effective vehicle for the socially concerned lyrics.
When Barnes isn’t overwriting his lyrics to hell and back with incongruent concepts and allusions, they can really catch you off guard with their relative simplicity and efficacy. One of the better moments of writing on the album is nestled in the chorus of “Writing the Circles,” in which the narrator advises, “Don’t complain about your personal hell / You should be grateful you don’t have to share one.” The brevity and wit of this section, and the few other lyrical moments like it, stands above most of the album; it’s a shame that although Barnes is capable of such efficient writing, he more than often opts for an over-involved, occasionally clunky style.
The central premise of the album itself tends to lengthen the tracks. Barnes has stated that the lyrics of “White Is Relic/Irrealis Mood” are about his experiences over the last year, in which he entered a serious romantic relationship and also became enamored by “simulation theory,” or the idea that our reality is the result of some higher being’s computer simulation. These are pretty disparate ideas, and by trying to combine them, Barnes has created a somewhat tonally and sonically lopsided album.
Mirroring the album, each of the tracks’ titles are essentially two different titles separated by a slant. The juxtaposition also affects the musical composition of the album as each song is effectively split between different sounding front and back ends. This structure pulls out the length of the songs for a gimmick that sometimes creates interesting musical progressions, but usually just makes one half of a song more successful than the other.
“Paranoiac Intervals/Body Dysmorphia,” the album’s first released single, particularly suffers from an ineffective, incongruous ending being plastered onto a way more enjoyable front end. The first five minutes of the track might be the highlight of the entire album. Barnes’s vocal performance is high and lively over an energetic synth and drum combination that gains energy as the four minutes go on. The chorus of the track isn’t burdened with Barnes’s trademark lyrical complications, instead focusing on the simple, effective hook of, “You should be fucking with no one else.”
Had the song ended after its first four minutes, it would have been an effective earworm of a single. But because Barnes is committed to overlong EDM tracks about both love and, somewhat confusingly, the unreality of reality, there’s a shoehorned outro that kills the track’s energy. The last two minutes quicken the drum speed while slowing down the synths to sound eerie and alien. Barnes’s own stretched out vocals are layered in with the track’s mixing, adding to the sense of unease that’s suddenly thrust on the track. Over this, the lyrical subject matter and delivery change: Barnes chants “I know how it feels / It feels, feels ugly / Body dysmorphia,” which is a real left-turn from the preceding lyrics of the track that dealt more with distrusting government than gender issues. And while the sudden shift in the song is an interesting experiment, it becomes a disservice to the first half of the track.
“Paranoiac Intervals” is a fun song, but the overlong outro becomes a slog to listen through. The exact opposite is true of “Sophie Calle Private Game/Every Person Is a Pussy, Every Pussy Is a Star!” in which the first half is six minutes of slower synth pop that’s fine but not great. Contrasting its front end, the latter half is as fun and snappy as the beginning of “Paranoiac Intervals.” The dichotomy of quality and sound in every track makes it hard to recommend the album to people not already desensitized to the vagaries of Barnes’s discography.
And while “White Is Relic/Irrealis Mood” isn’t as fussy or hard to get into as some of Barne’s other recent works, it also doesn’t seem to care about audience impressions. Ultimately, the album has spots of really enjoyable EDM but more filler than quality. That’s frustrating, because there’s a great album in there somewhere buried beneath all the excess lyrical work and track lengths.