I'll not mince words: Skeletal Lamping was a piece of crap but few people, least of all Kevin Barnes, would admit it. So it was probably asking too much for him to give up his R&B/funk and character-concept pretensions and go back to riding the strange mix of sounds on Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? Instead, here comes False Priest, which is an improvement over Lamping though not a major one. Leaving behind the willfully experimental song structures and the moronic Georgie Fruit character from that album, Priest nonetheless continues with similar music to a more accessible result. Of Montreal have been on this white boy funk thing long enough that it's now easy to forget that they were originally part of the Elephant 6 collective of bands. If those groups wanted to be Brian Wilson or other 60s icons who melded psychedelic weirdness with sweet pop hooks, Barnes nowadays wants to be Prince. Or Cee Lo Green.
I'll say this much for False Priest: it's not a piece of crap. What it is, though, is stunningly mediocre. None of this music rises above the level of exactly what one would expect from Barnes in this day and age, making “fun” music that someone, somewhere, might dance to. Seeing a song title like 'Coquet Coquette', you might imagine that this name/phrase will be used prominently in the chorus, and you'd be right. You might also imagine it's about a woman who Barnes either fancies or was wronged by, and you'd be right again. Someone not familiar with Of Montreal's modern music might found the swirling keyboard orgy toward the end of this song a bright burst of color, but it—and the by now patented bass/drum machine groove on the next track 'Godly Intersex'—is nothing new from this band. The lyrics and themes are still the same tongue in cheek (I hope) sex and gender playground he's been working from for two albums now. This was novel and interesting when used sparingly on Hissing Fauna but embarrassingly stupid on Skeletal Lamping; on False Priest it's evened out to tired. 'Sex Karma' could be a joke song from some Saturday Night Live skit, but here it makes me hope it's a joke. Barnes and guest Solange trade lame come-ons like “you look like a playground to me, player”, “let's go do some hide and seek/I know you are a little freak”, and “close your eyes and count to three/I kiss you where I shouldn't be.” All the while, the audience rolls its eyes. Were I a more cynical sort, I might accuse Barnes of trying to ride the coattails of R&B it-girl Janelle Monae, though her appearances on Priest are decent and don't feel like cash-ins.
I liked Of Montreal better when the conceptual stuff and genre reaching was subsumed in the music instead of overwhelming it. Kevin Barnes was a much more successful and interesting writer when he spilled his guts every once in awhile because it gave the silly/sexy stuff a dark underpinning. At the same time, the electro-funk/soul/R&B stuff may have first flowered on Hissing Fauna, but it was juxtaposed with the unexpected, like the monolithic krautrock groove of 'The Past Is A Grotesque Animal' or the psychedelic/experimental elements of songs like 'We Were Born The Mutants Again With The Leafling' and 'Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse.' You may think I just don't like this kind of music, but if it's done well, I do. Beck did the whole R&B/funk/sex-obsessed white boy pose better on Midnite Vultures, and Cee Lo Green has been doing the authentic article for almost a decade. Even setting the style and lyrics aside, False Priest is a strangely unambitious and flat album. It's as if Barnes has painted himself into a corner with his last couple albums and now has nothing new or compelling to say. Priest even borders on self parody at times; at least I hope so, because 'Godly Intersex' is one of the stupidest titles for a song ever if there's no wink behind it.
I think the key to Hissing Fauna's greatness was that Barnes was writing from genuine first person when he sang things like “I need help/come on mood shift, shift back to good again.” I like to pretend that since Georgie Fruit is gone, he isn't trying on, say, False Priest as a new persona, or a cipher, to write for/from. But even if he has, it's hard to feel anything or care when he's no longer a contender in the grand scheme of music-as-art to begin with. It's doubly hard when he's busied himself with making music aimed at the dancefloor warriors and satin sheets/tropical oils set who think Of Montreal is too weird/white and don't listen to his music to begin with, to say nothing of the hipsters who giggle from a position of ironic detachment. Maybe someone still takes him seriously, but I don't want to meet the kind of person who reacts to the racial, spiritual, brothers-and-sisters, wannabe 60s countercultural lyrical dreck of 'You Do Mutilate?' with a straight face.
Mind you, I'm not suggesting every artist needs to make serious music for solitary nerds, music that comes straight from their ragged hearts. I do, however, think that if Barnes would re-insert his true self into the music, he might become a contender again. As it stands, False Priest is merely boring and passable. Considering the pedigree of how distinctive both the band and the producer (Jon Brion, but you sure wouldn't know it) are, this dismissal can't help but be deeply ironic.