The indie artist’s newest album betrays the inventiveness of their previous discography.
A series of uncharacteristically straightforward, boring synth pop singles led up to Of Montreal’s 2020 release, “UR FUN.” (Yes, it’s a bad album title. The cover art also blows. We don’t have to get into it.) Of Montreal’s front man and polyamorous super villain, Kevin Barnes, is in love with his beautiful girlfriend, and here’s the long-awaited album about it. It’s not very good, but at least we can assume Barnes had FUN with it.
It’s a flavorless album, frankensteined partially out of loud, colorless synth songs and more somber pieces that, while less loudly annoying than the synth songs, remained just as drab. It’s an album that seems outdated already at release, failing to capture the more exciting movements in recent pop or to put an interesting spin on now- outdated synth music.
The lead single and first song on the album, “Peace to All Freaks,” is ostensibly about how it’s good to be weird, freakish, whatever else. Barnes sings (way too low in the mix, but that’s just my opinion): “You cannot spin us ‘round, your hate will end (Your hate will end) / We know the universe must express itself as awful people too / So we really just feel sad for you.” It’s a supposed salve to the great evils of society: outcasts of all walks of life, here’s your clunky, synthy validation. Easy as that.
The problem with all that, besides the complete superficiality of the song’s message, is that there’s absolutely nothing freakish about the song’s actual sound. It’s mediocre synthpop, full stop. A song called “Peace to All Freaks” should not sound like it could play in a Kmart. The title and the failed message of the track reminded me of a much more successful, somewhat recent song from Dorian Electra, “fReAky 4 Life,” a semi-industrial take on the same idea. Dorian Electra deserves to call themselves and their sound freaky, with their whole 2019 debut album “Flamboyant” featuring heavy vocal distortion, industrial beats and themes of gender complexity. Barnes’s “freakishness” pales in comparison, and makes him look like the much less in touch artist.
“You’ve Had Me Everywhere,” another one of the love song singles, is overwhelmed by its massive, inorganic instrumentation. The intended softness of the chorus, “Listening to your heartbeat, realizing it’s my heartbeat too / Because if something were to happen to you / I would lose my mind and I’d never get it back,” can’t compete with the poreless noise of the backing synths. The juxtaposition between the lyrical content and the compressed, metallic synths doesn’t elevate either element of the song; it just ensures that the song’s bad. Not in a unique or noteworthy way, but just generically bad — the sort of badness that’s rooted in bland- ness, not in failed experimentalism.
The whole album reeks of unoriginality. There are a few songs that seem like a paler version of early work from Of Montreal, “St. Sebastian” in particular, but they lack the punch in either the lyrics or in the instrumentation that typically makes Of Montreal engaging. Every track comes across either as 2020 Kevin Barnes doing a poor 2006 Kevin Barnes impersonation or as Barnes pretending to be a washed out synth pop musician. Neither is endearing.
“Camillas of Love” is a conceptually overburdened track about Alex Chilton of Big Star deleting his singer girlfriend’s recording vocals off tracks when they argued. Or, maybe it’s about ecstasy and couple’s therapy? In all honesty, neither the instruments nor the lyrics are interesting enough to really warrant further investigation. It’s all cloudy, off-putting faux-intellectualism, something that Barnes had been able to sell better on his last albums, even making it grimy and charismatic on 2007’s “Hiss- ing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?,” but it comes across as cheap and lazy on “UR FUN.”
And the reason why should be fairly obvious: it’s a synth pop love album. Why is the chorus on “Camillas of Love” literally “‘La morte negli occhi del gatto,’ or literally any Mario Bava / I, the Knight of Pentacles / Through Valleybrink whistles of ‘Twisted Nerve’ / With eyes coal-black as a Death Throne track”? It doesn’t make sense in the context of the rest of the album, or really at all. It’s not even subversive or thought-provoking or even coherent — it’s annoying.
“Gypsy That Remains” featuring Locate S,1 (the only feature on the whole record) is a breath of fresh air in the tracklist. The beat doesn’t overpower Barnes’s vocals or Christina of Locate S,1, and the addition of a female vocalist gives a light, dreamy quality to the track that’s severely lacking in the rest of the compressed metal-cube of an album. The instrumental for this track is by far my favorite of the record. There’s this killer synth-y, flute-y solo maybe three minutes in that’s my highlight of the whole project. That being said, the latter half of the track is burdened by a verse comprised of “I hate myself / I love myself,” which comes across as Barnes hitting the listener over the head with just how Emotionally Complex he is. It’s a minor blip in an otherwise good track, but it’s definitely still there and I definitely had to sit through it.
I liked the slow, sort of syrupy guitar on “Deliberate Self-harm Ha Ha,” and I think I enjoyed the first two minutes of the last track, “20th Century Schizofriendic Revengoid-man,” before the guitar solo breaks in and disrupts the flow of the song. It was difficult to gauge my exact feelings on these two final tracks, though, because the rest of the album was so genuinely grating that it be- came a challenge to judge the more somber, slowed down conclusion of the album apart from the abrasive, high-hat hitting “Peace to All Freaks” or “Polyaneurism.” The overly self-congratulatory King Crimson reference in the title of “20th Century Schizofriendic Revengoid-man” hardly helps things, either.
What really gets me about this new Of Montreal album, though, is that I think it might be sort of sucking away the luster the last decade of the band’s back catalogue has for me. Barne’s best work came out in the last half of the aughts, and while I’ve been a defendant of his 2010s releases (“It always surprises me,” I’d say), I have to admit the same problems are persistent throughout Barnes’s discography. The frustration I feel about this album, how I want to take a red pen to the lyrics for every one of the songs, would probably be how I felt about most of Barnes’ output if I heard it for the first time now. Maybe recognizing that means that I’ve grown as a music consumer, maybe I’m over-exaggerating in the moment how poorly I think Barnes executed “UR FUN.” But like the rest of this project, it doesn’t really matter. This album is bad. Listen to Dorian Electra.
Highlights: “Gypsy That Remains,” “Deliberate Self-Harm Ha Ha”
Lowlights: “Peace to All Freaks,” You’ve Had Me Everywhere,” “Polyaneurism,” “Get God’s Attention by Being an Atheist”