Of Montreal used to be quite winsome, and you won’t get any more pleasure from complaining about their 14th album than you would listening to it. Innocence Reaches is lighter than last year’s appropriately titled Aureate Gloom, but it’s less fun than it thinks it is, and in pursuing a more “current,” electronic-inspired sound, it’s lost the psychedelic charms of a better post-peak Of Montreal album like, say, 2013’s lousy with sylvianbriar. Twenty years into his run as the leader of the Athens, Georgia oddball collective, Kevin Barnes’ songwriting is still a mile wide and an inch deep. At least he’s eased up on the obscure adjectives that plagued the dissolute Paralytic Stalks (“gelid,” “malefic”); the latest track list is forced to make do with a mere “gratuitous.”
Great or middling, there’s no mistaking an Of Montreal album for some other band. Their signature scrambling grooves and off-kilter musical inconsistency are present here, but they seem stuck in low gear, then stall out completely on the undistinguished second half. Even so, Innocence Reaches begins promisingly. Opener “Let’s Relate” is genuinely fun electro-rock that sounds like it’s fronted by C-3PO. “It’s Different for Girls” is a would-be outrageous jam, even if it sounds more like a juiced-up version of an old CSS song than an original Elephant 6-meets-bleep-bloop experiment. “Gratuitous Abysses” is great, mostly because of how much it resembles David Bowie’s “The Jean Genie.”
The next song is called “Pan-Hellenic Vapors” — just kidding, I made that one up. After track three, it’s mostly a slide, and Barnes’ beloved theatrics eventually play more like the soundtrack of a musical you don’t especially care for. “A Sport and a Pastime” is particularly clumsy; four and a half long minutes interspersed with choppy vocal breakdowns and rattled by endless hi-hats. “My Fair Lady” is a whiny tune with an unlikable narrator, which hopefully isn’t just Barnes these days. “Ambassador Bridge” ascends with a bouncy pan flute, then sinks back to earth with a plodding pace and lyrics that are literally about exhuming oneself.
It’s hard to object when a band known for titles like “Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games” isn’t making sense, but the real problem with Innocence Reaches is that I’ve got no idea what it’s reaching for, and I’m not convinced Barnes does, either. Relatively early Of Montreal albums like 2004’s Satanic Panic in the Attic had more fun with simpler wordplay and thrived on a certain hedonistic joy in encountering the world (“Chrissy Kiss the Corpse,” anyone?). Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? exploded with a slicker sound, but even the most opaque of titles (“Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse”) couldn’t conceal visceral human pain (“I’m in a crisis, I need help / C’mon mood, shift, shift back to good again”).
Innocence Reaches offers no such moment of vulnerability or reliability. What to make of the psychedelic-poster-meets-Ben-Day-dot cover art of blue women, reproductive organs, and a pair of florid breasts that look like they’re staring at me? Maybe “It’s Different for Girls” is purposely silly, internally contradictory nonsense, but lines like, “They’re depersonalized / Aggressively objectified” and “Though some of them are demons, all of them are gods” make odd bedfellows.
When Barnes’ group first arrived on the scene, his penchant for dressing up in outlandish costumes and then getting naked on stage felt transgressive and fun. Paralleling a shift in generational culture, younger artists are exploring and exposing gender in ways that weren’t nearly as visible 12 or 15 years ago. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the 42-year-old Barnes’ approach now seems, at best, like unproductive culture-jamming, or, at worst, condescending and out of touch.
It’s too depressing to consider that Of Montreal might never again hit the glammy heights of 2010’s False Priest, so if you don’t plan to wade through Innocence Reaches, allow me to make two recommendations: Listen to (the much better) Priest, or to “Hey Big Star,” former OM violinist K Ishibashi’s new song as Kishi Bashi. Both embody the kind of quick-witted melodies and unconditional joy Innocence Reaches finds it so hard to muster. Kevin Barnes can be good delighted or miserable, of course, but I’d rather be left alone when I get bored.