3. Of Montreal – Skeletal Lamping
Word on the street has it that the album format is dead, and that pick ‘n’ mix downloading from mp3 megastores like iTunes and eMusic is the way of the future. Well, even if you’re naïve enough to believe that money will continue to change hands as the generations who have never had to pay for music march resolutely on, you’d have to be pretty deluded or incredibly narcissistic to believe that you’d be able to play God with an album and come out the better for it, telling from 30 second previews which songs are worth having and which are likely to be skipped over anyway. Like, on your iPod.
If you do believe that, though, I doubt you’d have much fun with Skeletal Lamping. Following up what seemed to be a perfect synthesis of the Pop Song and incredibly complex, cerebral structures and lyrics on ‘Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?’ (my erstwhile favourite album, though a late challenger may have emerged), Skeletal Lamping eschews the ultimately superficial shell that is the 2-6 minute song. If you were trying to figure out which songs you’d like from 30 second samples on Skeletal Lamping, you’d literally only be hearing about a quarter of the songs, or ‘sketches’ as they might more properly be called.
The concept, as I grasp it, is as follows: Kevin Barnes comes up with what is known in the trade (maybe) as a “bit”. Normally, this would be hewn through hard labour into something approaching a four-minute song. But on Skeletal Lamping, the bit exists in its own right. It segues into another bit, which could be completely different. This process repeats, and occasionally bits might reappear, or an extended sketch which goes verse-chorus-verse-chorus might show up, but the net result is, at the end of an hour or so, a fairly volatile mass of styles.
Could be terrible. Probably sounds terrible. Some people did think it was terrible, perhaps misguidedly expecting that most sacred of taboos, a repeat of the last record. It’s not terrible though. It is, very basically, a mind map. 50%, say, of Kevin Barnes’ mind is reasonably funky. 20-30% is concentrated in doe-eyed pop, some of which crosses over into the 50% funk. Sometimes he turns into Aladdin Sane for about a minute and a half. Sometimes he’s normal and he sings nostalgic love songs. Sometimes he is fucked up and sings from the perspective of a middle-aged pre-op transvestite named Georgie Fruit, who you may have met in the latter stages of Hissing Fauna.
The pieces of the jigsaw often don’t make sense in isolation. But of course they don’t. Who has ever looked at a single jigsaw piece and exclaimed in recognition of genius? That doesn’t happen. It’s a mind-map. It doesn’t make sense by itself. It makes sense as a whole, though, and probably gives a clearer picture of a particularly interesting person/character/person than any of Of Montreal’s previous efforts did, even though they weren’t half as veiled. At moments there is unbearable tension, such as a pitch-black invocation of the ubiquitous “ladies of the spread” who overlook Georgie’s existence. At other moments, there is reckless, screwy disco abandon that would seem like kids’ TV if you hadn’t heard the half-hour of music that came before.
Cokemachineglow said there weren’t moments of transcendence. I got into an argument about this, and shorn of the weapons of sobriety and reasoned detachment, I did what I always do. I got vaguely hysterical and threw my hands to heaven. There are moments of transcendence. So many. First track, Nonpareil of Favor. Its title is a fucking moment of transcendence in itself. Anyone who uses words that are almost exclusive to Macbeth in the title of a song is permanently invited to my house (familiarity with my sometimes musical project is not expected – but about 75% of the songs have Shakespeare references, mostly to Macbeth). The measuredness of the build-up is transcendent. Kevin/Georgie celebrating a love realised in the first (and only) verse is transcendent. Turning the first corner of the album is transcendent in itself, and the sleaze of the second sketch is, through contrast with the first one, transcendent too.
But let anyone stand in front of me and tell me that the three minute wig-out that follows is not transcendent. It struck me (on a bus, as these things are wont to do) that the wig-out at the end of Nonpareil of Favor is both a representation of chaos in the perceptible universe in general and inside the head of Kevin/Georgie. That somebody can make noise sound like something that specific and that complex is surely a sign of genius?
I realise that this review moreso than probably any of the other album reviews I’ve done here is based totally on a subjective view of the album. But in the end, every review is subjective. This CD, complete with David Barnes’ insanely detailed, analogous-to-the-music fold-out cover art, took over my life for a while. So it commands this place. The only question I have: how do you follow this?