In 2007’s masterful Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer, of Montreal frontman/visionary/songwriter Kevin Barnes got up close and personal, expressing his fears, frustrations and failures against rainbow-hued synth-pop with a funky, disco-fied swagger.
Skeletal Lamping finds Barnes in much better spirits and back to mining his psyche for material, the album playing much like you’d imagine his psyche actually works — jumping from one memory to another, lingering on sexual fantasies and depravities, stopping to muse and ruminate on this incident or that person, mood-shifting from confident to downtrodden, from high and happy to contemplative to spazzed-out, thoughts and ideas spurting forth lucid and witty, or as disorienting streams-of-consciousness. Soulful ditties and synth-pop dance numbers mingle amid songs-within-songs that are made up of a few or more wildly divergent electro-symphonic movements, each with its own rhythm and sound and feel that either fits comfortably or crashes inelegantly into the movement before it to create an interesting and truly exceptional, if sometimes chaotic and sonically challenging, whole.
Take the first song, “Nonpareil of Favor,” an ode of appreciation to the love of his life that begins as a lighthearted, high-energy dance tune only to slow to a slinky saunter, then explode into a heavily distorted walls of sound that diminishes and uncovers a swell of bouncy rhythms and falsetto harmonies. The next number, “Wicked Wisdom,” sees the return of Georgie Fruit — Barnes’ African-American cross-dressing alter ego who was first introduced in Hissing Fauna — and it goes from saucy dance-pop to skat-rink disco, dissolving into a marching, electro-percussive breakdown that draws to a close with a chorus of dreamy strings and vocals.
Throughout, Barnes unreservedly explores his sexuality, whether he’s writing naughty pop hooks in “For Our Elegant Caste” (“We can do it softcore if you want, but you should know I take it both ways”), or throwing around phallic references in “St. Exquisite's Confessions” (“I’m so sick of sucking the dick of this cruel, cruel city”), or recounting a sexual rendezvous in “Women’s Studies Victims (“I took her standing in the kitchen, ass against the sink/ She draped me in a stole /
What kind? / I think Malaysian mink”), or admitting to caring about a girl enough to enact a not-so-unlikely fantasy in “Plastis Wafer” (“You're the only one with whom I would role play Oedipus Rex”).
Skeletal Lamping isn’t necessarily an accessible album, but it is still quite a work, a soulful, danceable piece of art that’s easy to misunderstand if you don’t have the time or patience to put into listening to it, but one you’ll eventually feel compelled to revisit over and over again. (Polyvinyl) ****1/2