Album review: Of Montreal

White Is Relic/ Irrealis Mood

White Is Relic/ Irrealis Mood is the 24th studio album released by American psych pop band Of Montreal. Since 1996, OM’s frontman Kevin Barnes has been the driving creative force behind the act, and although the band has gone through many incarnations it has always remained very much Barnes’ pet project.

Of Montreal has long been a revered, albeit little known player in the indie scene. Signed to Polyvinyl records, a predominantly indie label, OM is often associated with Lo-Fi sounding acts like Neutral Milk Hotel, and MGMT. On this record, Barnes throws the indie rule book out the window and completely abandons the live band dynamic, trading in his usual eight piece ensemble for what sounds like an array of retro synths, drum machines, and digital workstations. On previous releases like Its Different for Girls, Barnes teased listeners with a glitzy new tone that has come to fruition in White is Relic/Irrealis Mood.  Despite these tectonic changes, some hallmark OM tropes stay the same. Barnes’ hugely Beatles influenced vocal mixing, funk baselines, and juxtaposingly lighthearted and simultaneously dark lyrics all tie in to the themes of previous albums and build a line of continuity through his releases.

White is Relic/Irrealis Mood revolves around the idea of duality, with each song split into two related but often contrasting halves. This is a familiar technique for Barnes, who likes to mix extreme highs with crushing lows in both the arrangement of his songs, as well as the structure of his albums. Of Montreal’s most praised album Hissing Fauna are you the Destroyer, maps Barnes’ experience with depression, and features a monster 8 minute track that transitions the listener from the downward spiraling first half into the more upbeat recovery stage of the album. Barnes employees this technique on a song-to-song level in White is Relic/Irrealis Mood, by hybridizing the song names and essentially combining two shorter contrasting songs into a single extended mix, a call back to the long playing club mixes of the 1980’s.

Kevin Barnes performing live as Of Montreal

The track Paranoiac Intervals/Body Dysmorphia embodies this duality, where the first half of the song is this great big club banger, with a kick drum to punch a hole in your chest. Energetic trap inspired hi hats drive the song over a big bouncy baseline, while Barnes’ sparkly processed vocals sway and harmonize in the forefront. The lyrical content of the first half revolves around the synthetic nature of modern society, and how marketing is essentially drugging consumers into believing false truths. We are treated with a long swishy synth riser that stutters and squabbles over a complex arrangement of 80’s drum hits that sound like they could be pulled straight from a  Billy Idol track. As the tension rises and the cumulative sound reaches a fever pitch, Barnes drops us into a deep dark groove thats plays out for another four minutes. This section comments lyrically on the feeling of uneasiness and prolonged discomfort brought on by the phenomenon of body dysmorphia. The vocals are over-filtered and mangled, giving the sense that the sounds produced don’t quite line up with the lyrics sung, a brief glimpse into the unending physical dissonance of Body Dysmorphia.

The other big track of the album is Sophie Calle Private Game/Every Person Is a Pussy, Every Pussy Is a Star! Which along with Paranoiac Intervals seems to have the most mainstream appeal and radio playability. We hear a little bit of Barnes’ feeling more comfortable behind the guitar, accompanied by some jazzy horn toots to lighten the mood. The jangly funk bass calls back to previous OM albums, and is a playful change of pace from the prior track. Through the chorus, Barnes’ uses the classic dance TR 909 kick drum, that sounds a little like BOOM fuckin BOOM, which combined with easily the fattest bass on the album, is a sure fire way to get partygoers flocking to the dance floor.

Other cuts on the album are insightful but considerably less accessible in terms musicality and interpretability. I found myself having to research a lot of the lyrics to understand what Barnes’ was getting at. He constantly references philosophical frameworks, ancient mythology, french & spanish literature, not to mention a whole caboodle of abstract concepts like Orgone, which google describes as “a supposed excess sexual energy or life force distributed throughout the universe which can be collected and stored for subsequent therapeutic use.” I think this totally encapsulates the idea of OM and translates into a lot of the music. Themes of sexual & political freedom, self awareness, the decline of culture, and what it means to be human are all discussed both in relation to the world as a whole and Barnes’ own manic life. The song Plateau Phase/No Careerism No Corruption is exactly this, with Barnes diving into the realm of pseudoscience to explore the ‘living simulation’ created by social media oversaturation and marketing pressures applied by corporations and a mismanaged government. Barnes’ doesn’t shy away from his own shortcomings either and is extremely self critical in his lyrics, in the same song highlighting the unsustainable lifestyle he lives in an effort to distract himself from the state of the world. While it all falls apart, he and many other are instead ‘Making Party, Making Party’.

The first half of the album title White is Relic is a callout to the toxicity of anglo culture and the shallow way in which it appropriates other cultures in an attempt to exploit them for profit. In particular, Barnes’ defends the LGBTBBQ+ movement and urges others to reject the corporate portrale perpetrated by insincere organisations. When he sings “There will be no gentrification of our graffitied warship of summer love” my mind conjures the image of the recent Apple & airBnB commercials in lieu of Australia’s marriage equality bill, as if the lifelong struggle of the most underrepresented demographic somehow ties into the sale of mobile phones. This falls into Barnes’ idea of a simulation, where even genuine values and concepts become misrepresented as institutions adopt them for their own self-serving purposes.  

White is Relic/Irrealis Mood is an ambitious release, that risks alienating a large portion of Of Montreal listeners who might feel disenfranchised by the hardcore sound change. I get the feeling that Barnes’ is still trying to really break through to the mainstream, however his eccentricism and unorthodox thematic content is simply too hard to digest for most casual listeners. His simple songs are his most widely listened to releases, however it’s plain to see that he is not satisfied by writing generic music. This in itself is the largest hurdle Barnes has long been struggling to overcome. In a recent interview the host mentions how prolific Of Montreal has been with its releases, not yet having put out a bad album. Barnes responds by claiming that OM has never put out a great album either, and that he is too old now because “That’s something you gotta do when you’re like 22”. Barnes knows full well that his music is left of field, and is unwilling to compromise his own supposedly superior taste for what is considered to be popular at the time. He does not see himself as equal to his influences, nor even his comparatively more successful contemporaries, who all managed to gain widespread praise for their own uncompromising music, something that Barnes’ both envies and is motivated by.
I think White is Relic/Irrealis Mood is an excellent album, however also know that it will likely be overlooked and misunderstood. Even the album name, Irrealis Mood, is a grammatical reference to a thing not yet happening as the speaker is talking. This feels like Barnes’ tooting his own horn a little bit, perhaps implying that this album will be another underrated gem simply because it’s so ahead of its time. Whether or not this is accurate, only the future will show, however in the meantime I’ll remain excited for the next Of Montreal release and where the sound will go from here.

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