of Montreal Albums From Worst To Best
The name of the game for of Montreal has always been evolution. Their current incarnation, making its debut on their newest album Lousy With Sylvianbriar, favors whip-smart, sinewy rock songs, eschewing the dance pop they’ve embraced in recent years, while baring a faint resemblance to the classicist proclivities they favored early in their career. Yet Sylvianbriar is somehow leaner and more focused, lyrically assuming far darker tropes than their early efforts.
Emerging from Athens, GA in the mid-’90s, of Montreal shared a similar, escapist mentality with their Elephant 6 brethren, in thrall to the likes of the Who, the Beatles, and the Beach Boys. They crafted a few excellent records — Cherry Peel, The Gay Parade, and The Bedside Drama: A Petite Tragedy. While not as essential as seminal albums such as The Apples In Stereo’s Fun Trick Noisemaker, or Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over The Sea, these were nonetheless indispensable artifacts from a magical era of Athens pop music. But early on in particular, frontman Kevin Barnes differentiated himself with his sheer earnestness. There was something magical in the air on Cherry Peel, a voice seemingly devoid of guile providing a panoramic view of a rotoscopic dreamscape. The Gay Parade managed to tap into Barnes’s keen knack for expository character sketches, imbuing the likes of organ grinders and boxers with a certain winsome compassion.
These albums, and subsequent efforts Coquelicot Asleep In The Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse and Aldhis Alboretum, exhibited Barnes’s faculty for crafting playfully eccentric character sketches, all the while cobbling together melodies into irresistible pastiches.
Around the time of 2005’s The Sunlandic Twins, the band, now pared to just Barnes on the recordings, underwent a sea change, experimenting with electronic textures and disco-infused beats undergirding Barnes’ most personal lyrics to date. The live shows too underwent a profound evolution, using props, costume changes, and actors to achieve an altogether more theatrical experience, approximating the surrealism of a Fellini film. His brother David Barnes served as art director on these stage sets, while also crafting the artwork for many of their albums and designing much of their merchandise, an integral ingredient in their ever-shifting ethos. The apotheosis of these sets was perhaps the now-infamous October 2008 Roseland Ballroom show, which featured Barnes riding a white horse on stage while singing “St. Exquisite’s Confessions” from the then-unreleased Skeletal Lamping.
Barnes’s much-publicized bout with depression arose around this time. Triggered by a move to Norway with his wife Nina, and the subsequent birth of his daughter, Alabee, his songs became more inward looking. 2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are you the Destroyer? was the climax of these endeavors, a superb record rife with hyper-charged synth melodies belying plangent melodrama, equally cribbed from Brian Eno as Brian May. The record also found Barnes metaphorically transforming into Georgie Fruit, a Ziggy Stardust-esque alter ego, a disassociation of sorts which demarcated himself from his well-chronicled separation from his wife, with whom he would soon reconcile. Barnes has long maintained that the first half of Hissing Fauna represented his vulnerable side, with the album bifurcated by the epic “The Past Is A Grotesque Animal.”
Georgie Fruit’s id-dominated travails continue and are captured with alacrity on the stunning 2008 album Skeletal Lamping, still the band’s most ambitious album to date. Its schizoid sprawl is daunting at first, but repeated listens reveal an eminently catchy and rewarding record, a Dada-esque series of vignettes that somehow cohere into a deeply moving full-on album experience, in a sense an exorcism of Georgie Fruit and the demons that dogged Barnes post-separation.
Following up Skeletal Lamping was bound to be a daunting task, but Barnes again raised the bar by collaborating with Jon Brion on 2010’s False Priest. The album didn’t scale the lofty heights of its two predecessors, but with guest stars in Janelle Monáe and Solange Knowles, it certainly was sonically fascinating, perhaps the finest amalgamation of hip-hop and conventional pop accomplished by Barnes. Yet, there was something lacking here — it at times felt forced, and didn’t have the organic, off-the-cuff sense of danger so many of Montreal albums had engendered.
This changed a bit on 2012’s Paralytic Stalks, which returned to the confessional writing style largely absent since Hissing Fauna, albeit in a darker, more fractious tone. There’s a certain desperation at its heart, and while it isn’t a nervous breakdown record akin to Fauna, it exhibits a certain resigned dignity, and for that reason alone ranks among the act’s finest efforts.
The newly released Lousy With Sylvianbriar is yet another triumph for Barnes, tipping his hat to idols such as Neil Young, Gram Parsons, and The Rolling Stones. It’s a rock and roll record with thrust and swagger, done so without compromising any of the idiosyncrasies or vulnerabilities so endemic to of Montreal’s sound. It also illustrates that Barnes isn’t afraid to take audacious artistic leaps — he’s confident that his audience will grow with him, as they largely have so far. His only constant has been change, and let’s hope that this continues to be the rule for one of the most challenging and finest songwriters of the past twenty years.
The Bedside Drama: A Petite Tragedy (1998)
A multi-part concept suite that would foreshadow the future of Montreal efforts, The Bedside Drama brings with it subtle stylistic shifts -- from the Morricone-esque Spaghetti Western gallop of "One of a Very Few of a Kind," to the clamorous percussion undermining the otherwise delicate "Happy Little Bumblebee," this is very much a transitional album for of Montreal. "Sadness Creeping Away and Scaring the Couple’s Happiness" foreshadows the marital woes addressed so viscerally and honestly on Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?
False Priest (2010)
Following the polarizing Skeletal Lamping, False Priest is somehow more straightforward, with songs existing as individual entities instead of pieces in a Gestalt puzzle. Barnes collaborates with Janelle Monáe and Solange here, a logical progression of his infatuation with contemporary R&B, and on tracks such as "Enemy Gene" and "Coquette Coquette," plays with the same divine fire he so often ignited on Hissing Fauna and Skeletal Lamping. Here, though, the raging infernos are further and further between, and a certain restraint is exercised. This isn’t a bad thing, per se -- False Priest is an excellent album. It just doesn’t scale the crashing ambitions of the act’s prior two efforts. Its closest is with a denunciation of organized religion in "You Do Mutilate?," spoken through a pitch changer so as to further reinforce the emotional impact of the protagonist’s words, as if they’re a beacon from some alien frequency cautioning of calamitous possibilities ahead.
Aldhils Arboretum (2002)
Stephin Merritt has often claimed that he wanted The Magnetic Fields’ opus 69 Love Songs to be a singles collection with no unifying themes. While Merritt was somewhat successful in this endeavor, of Montreal extrapolate from Merritt’s technique on the maddeningly haphazard Aldhils Arboretum. From the braying glam stomp of "Doing Nothing," to the sad-faced lament "Pancakes for One," to the eerie, Syd Barrett in a wind tunnel "Kid Without Claws," Aldhils seemingly only has a guiding principle of entropy. But in the schizoid world of of Montreal, entropy makes a hell of a lot of sense on this terrific, transitory album.
Coquelicot Asleep In The Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse (2001)
Coquelicot Asleep at the Poppies is perhaps the pinnacle of the "assumed characters" of Montreal era. Tracks like "Good Morning Mr. Edmonton" bounce along with the buoyancy of prime-era Kinks, playfully celebrating their protagonist’s eccentricities. The album’s something of a multi-part suite, encompassing a litany of characters and their bountiful eccentricities, held together by melodies that would make the Beatles blush. However, when put in the context of the band’s full discography, this album rings a tad hollow. It’s great in its own right, but when one recognizes the brilliance that lies ahead, it’s a stepping stone on a path to a slew of truly seminal pieces of work.
The Gay Parade (1999)
The Gay Parade was of Montreal’s most audacious album to date when it was released in 1999. Rife with "Strawberry Fields Forever"-piano layering, and ornate melodies, it’s sonically irresistible, dwelling on the simplicity and universality of human emotions on tracks such as "The Miniature Philosopher," with its plaintive longing for connection, or the escapist daydream "A Collection of Poems About Water," this is of Montreal at their most poignant. Never deigning to cheap sentimentality, this is a collection of 16 tracks that effectively capture the loneliness and desperate longing at the core of the human condition, perhaps the record that tugs closest to the heart in the vast of Montreal canon.
Lousy With Sylvianbriar (2013)
The biggest stylistic transformation in an of Montreal album since 2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, Lousy with Sylvianbriar finds Barnes adopting the swagger of mid-period Stones, Gram Parsons, and early Neil Young. These 11 songs eradicate the lingering vestiges of Georgie Fruit, and establish Barnes as a singularly brilliant songwriter, something akin to his Sea Changes without the breakup histrionics. Eschewing the dance and R&B elements that defined the band’s past four albums, it’s an abrupt change, and one that nods subtly to their earliest efforts when guitar driven melodies were the rule. There’s much to enjoy throughout Sylvianbriar: the swampy, repetitive guitar riff of "Belle Grade Missionaries," which brazenly addresses school shootings and the military industrial complex, the gun-slinging, taut Stones-esqe riffs of "Fugitive Air," and the slow-motion reverie of "Amphibian Days." This may lack the crashing ambitions of earlier of Montreal records, but it’s quite obviously a necessary stylistic step forward for the band, and a damn good record.
Cherry Peel (1997)
As was the rule for E6 at the time, Cherry Peel, of Montreal’s debut LP, sounds gloriously insular, hermetically sealed, as if it took place in the deep recesses of Kevin Barnes’ subconscious. A dream-like phantasmagoria reins supreme, with delectable Kinks-infused melodies rendering many of these tracks eminently likable. Many of the tracks are doe-eyed, innocent love songs with subtle psych flourishes ("Everything Disappears When You Come Around," "Baby"), not far removed from what The Apples in Stereo and Olivia Tremor Control were doing at the time. The band’s sound would grow more expansive, and its lyrics more ambitious, but they’d never lose touch with the lyrical vulnerability and melodic sense on full display throughout this terrific debut.
Paralytic Stalks (2012)
In an early interview during the making Paralytic Stalks, Barnes suggested to me that Sufjan Stevens’ opus The Age of Adz was an early influence on Paralytic Stalks. And indeed, the ambition engendered throughout the album has parallels with Stevens’ album. The fragmentation nature of both is the most obvious similarity, as Stalks veers wildly stylistically, from the plangent, near industrial clamor of opener "Gelid Ascent," to the quasi-bucolic wanderings of the lovely "Dour Percentage." Stalks is perhaps the most difficult of Montreal album to crack, even more inscrutable than Skeletal Lamping, yet it’s also one of the most rewarding and best albums they’ve committed to tape. Stay with Barnes and you’re on a miasmatic journey thorough his own heart, not the contrived Georgie Fruit explored throughout Skeletal Lamping. A pitch black mark on the band’s discography, history may treat this one well yet. Time will tell.
Satanic Panic In The Attic (2004)
The band’s most impressive LP up until then, it seemingly found them in a quixotic reverie. Songs such as "Disconnect the Dots" and "Lysergic Bliss" were pure AM radio genius, fixating on the everyday minutiae of paying rent and deconstructing relationships, with the intention of assembling something of value from disparate feelings. The music, as on many of Montreal albums, betrayed the often serious subject matters, although on Satanic Panic this certainly wasn’t as grave as on later efforts. And "My British Tour Diary" is an expository, hilarious chronicle of the band’s tour to England, name checking The Apples in Stereo among many others. No, this isn’t the band’s finest album, but it’s a damn good one, and foreshadowed the greatness they had in store. "Rapture Rapes the Muses" certainly raises the stakes with its morose subject matter with its decidedly grave subject matter, while "Eros Entropic Tundra" is a sophomoric yet affecting plea for connection. The record is indeed caught at a crossroads, one that would be quickly breached on the following Sunlandic Twins. And lest we forget the spectacular "Vegan in Furs", a spectacular play on words referencing the Velvets’ "Venus in Furs", but seemingly has nothing to do with it, instead denoueing with a non-sequitir of "their moss mangles polyanthus, and mine’s a paper ball." Huh? Nonetheless, this is a triumphant album, and one of the band’s finest.
The Sunlandic Twins (2005)
Sunlandic Twins inched of Montreal even closer to their magnum opus Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? Opening track "Requiem for O.M.M.2" plays the torturous memory games so ubiquitous on Destroyer, while "So Begins Our Alabee" is an excruciating ode to Kevin and Nina Barnes’ young daughter Alabee, all raw nerve contrition and blithe optimism, as Barnes intones with stark vulnerability, "You’re my only softness/ You’re my only pleasure/ And I never want to be your funny little abject failure." He sounds as though he feels as if he’s doomed to be "her little abject failure," but that doesn’t top him from crafting a tune rife with grief, joy, and guarded optimism. Failure, to some degree is inevitable, a subject Barnes would explore in much more detail on the album’s follow-up. It’s impossible to mention this album without bringing up the licensing of "Wraith Pinned to the Mist (And Other Games)," in which the tune was re-written as a de facto Outback Steakhouse theme song. And while it seemed gauche to many at the time, it occurred in an era when indie bands, struggling with diminishing album sales and the proliferation of illegal file sharing, relied upon licensing to stay afloat. The band wouldn’t shy away from similar opportunities in the future, later licensing "Every Day Feels Like Sunday," "Gronlandic Exit," and "A Sentence of Sorts In Kongsvinger" for commercial use.
Skeletal Lamping (2008)
Speaking about the then polarizing reaction to Skeletal Lamping, Kevin Barnes revealed to me in a 2008 interview, "Matthew Friedberger from The Fiery Furnaces recently said you shouldn’t expect to like every song from bands that you like, or even like every album from bands you like, and having that attitude is very liberating as an artist. You just do what you feel compelled to do and hope that people will go there with you, and if they don’t necessarily appreciate one thing, then they’re hopefully not going to completely close off on you." Skeletal Lamping was indeed an album Barnes felt compelled to do, and he succeeded spectacularly, although many may have denied it at the time, and continue to up to this day. It was vast, incongruous, with myriad stylistic shifts, some downright unlikable characters, and subject manner that likely made listeners uncomfortable. It also went to the deepest recesses of Kevin Barnes’ psyche, dredging up and exorcising the voracious Georgie Fruit, introduced on Hissing Fauna. But what was missed in the numerous pans of this album was just how spectacular the arrangements and melodies are throughout -- "Beware Our Nubile Miscreants" alone sounds as though it could’ve walked the plank from a late-era Beatles album only to be re-recorded by Prince circa 1999. It’s that good. And perhaps Barnes best summed it up in our 2008 chat, saying, "When I think of my favorite records, like Smile by The Beach Boys, S.F. Sorrow by The Pretty Things, or Beatles records like The White Album, they seem sort of schizophrenic when you first listen to them, and then eventually you know what’s gonna happen next, and you look forward to it, and it’s still exciting. It’s not boring because you had to invest a bit of time and brainpower in the first place to get into it." Invest that time and brainpower into Skeletal Lamping and it will yield similar rewards.
Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer (2007)
The band’s magnum opus to date, it’s a nervous breakdown record on par with the greats -- Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, or Nirvana’s In Utero. Channeling Brian Eno circa Here Come the Warm Jets and Heroes era David Bowie, Fauna is of Montreal's most ambitious and most excruciatingly personal album to date. Glam-tinged saccharine melodies are belied by plangent lyrics throughout, which chronicle front man Kevin Barnes' separation from his wife and subsequent psychological meltdown. On the freakishly bubblegum "Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse," Barnes bargains with his capricious psyche like it's a street vendor, as he implores, "Chemicals don't strangle my pen, come on chemicals!" The line's sung with such alacrity that you can almost feel the inhibition of his seratonin's reuptake. And on the maddeningly repetitive Neu-like opus "The Past is a Grotesque Animal," he exhorts, "It's like we weren't made for this world, though I wouldn't want to meet someone who was." It's an unsparing sentiment, one that best captures the spirit of Hissing Fauna, a gilded pop record etched in black. The record marks the cataclysmic transformation of Barnes into Georgie Fruit, a Ziggy Stardust-esque figure seemingly impervious to emotional harm, composed of pure id. Georgie Fruit dominates the second half of the record, culminating on the gonzo electro rave-up "She’s a Rejecter." Yet, as previous records would indicate, Georgie Fruit is a defense mechanism, and a fallible one at that. It may take a few records, but down the road we’re once again left with Kevin Barnes -- imperfect, vulnerable, and acutely sensitive to his myriad flaws.