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of Montreal Continues the Chaotic Search for Identity on 'Innocence Reaches'

Music ReviewWeston PaganoComment

of Montreal's lower case cache of chaos, innocence reaches, opens with a question: “How do you identify? / How do you ID?" Though perhaps a newly-minted staple introduction of the millennial age, sexual discovery has been an omnipresent undercurrent in the kaleidoscopic catalog of androgynous flamboyance only the man who once transformed into a transsexual alter-ego named Georgie Fruit could procure. Whether aimed outward or introspectively (and we get both in spades), these sorts of probing enquiries form the spine of a record that combines Kevin Barnes’ psychedelic sound with newfound electronic experimentation.

Though not on the levels of Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?’s dense tracklist, Barnes grandiloquence is still on full display on innocence reaches as his trademark verbosity continues to force us to come to terms with just how limited the vocabulary of pop music usually is. Even at his most overwrought - Barnes amusingly recounts basking in the sun as "absorb[ing] some solar lashings" on “chaos arpeggiating“ - he still manages to somehow pull it off in a jarringly natural way. Only he could rhyme "gratuitous abysses" and make one 2016's catchiest rock hooks out of it while reminiscing of “The Jean Genie” guitar riffs. "Am I on the edge of a really big breakthrough / Or just another meltdown?" he again begins a song with interrogation. For Barnes the answer is usually both simultaneously, and we’re better for it in the voyeuristic way we as consumers of his emotional turmoil can't help but be.

Though the binary-challenging instant dance bounce of “let’s relate” and off-kilter feminist anthem of “it’s different for girls” may seem increasingly on the nose, it’s likely only because times have begun to catch up with Barnes himself, who has been strutting stages in dresses and glitter - if anything at all - since the ‘90s. “I’m thankful to have an outlet for that, to express that and not get chased out of town or beat up. I think we’re moving in the right direction now,” he’s explained, and for a gender-fluid performer based in Athens, Georgia (a classic Southern town that only just closed local favorite Confederate-themed bar last year) that's a feat not to be under-appreciated. Pressed beneath a cover adorned with neon naked female forms created by longtime art directer and set-opening hype-man David Barnes, his brother adds to the highlighting of the “wonderment for the female anatomy” (and we can't wait to see how many times this review is taken down by Facebook because of it).

Just as 2013’s Lousy With Sylvianbriar signaled a departure in sound as of Montreal shed its auxiliary members while Barnes fled to San Francisco, for this album he decamped to Paris in the waning wake of his divorce, and innocence reflects that shift in geography as well. Enjoying the anonymity only foreign excursions can bring, Barnes lyrically fleshes innocence with the tales of French flings from “les chants de maldoror”’s “We only act nicely when we’re ruining hotel beds / I greeted you in a hundred doorways” to “trashed exes”’s “The problem is a different girl / An Athenian beach­-goth.” Recorded in a small urban apartment, he also often eschews the cacophony and collaboration of the traditional rock band instruments of the previous two LPs for fear of neighboring flats complaining, resulting in a collection of solitarily forged tunes addressing new characters and love interests set to the more manageable modes of drum machines and synthesizers.

This change of scenery also burst the bubble that blocked the contemporary music climate from influencing Barnes, as he began pulling from peers Jack Ü, Chairlift, and Arca after a career largely inspired by Prince, Bowie, Beach Boys, and Beatles. Flirting with skittering trap beats and EDM-inspired synthetic sound, particularly on standout “a sport and a pastime,” Barnes both shows old dogs can learn new tricks, deftly mixing nearly nihilist levels of destructive tendencies with glittering rave. Vocally it seems he's settled on more monotonous murmurs and coos over his chandelier-swinging shrieks of the mid aughts.

One of the few certainties of each of Montreal release is the likelihood that its successor is already at least partially completed by the time your copy has arrived. Coming only one year after Aureate Gloom and their 14th proper LP in 19 years, one could argue the only reason of Montreal’s recent records fail to make a larger splash is simply because people can't seem to consume his confessional epics as quickly as he can produce them. While Barnes no doubt lapses in and out of varying degrees of self-indulgence, give them time and you can't help but still be entranced, even if it can take some time to chew.

"It's not bad / It’s not sad / It’s fun,” closer “chap pilot” bluntly justifies before ending with a repetition of “I guess we can still surprise ourselves when we stop acting way too tough.” It’s an appropriate realization for a shameless poet ever vacillating between unforgivingly brutal depictions of love and desperately vulnerable admissions. 14 albums and 19 years later the only consistent predictability is that Barnes will indeed still continue to surprise.

Read our in-depth interview with of Montreal here.