OF MONTREAL // INNOCENCE REACHES
by Maggie Danna on August 19, 2016
Posted in: Album Review, Electronic, Pop, Rock
Classic of Montreal + electronica + relationship failure. Innocence Reaches contains the band’s first completely EDM songs, a new musical foray that is especially significant remembering that Kevin Barnes used to only listen to music from the 1970s and earlier. Coupled with EDM, Innocence Reaches‘ other key element is glammy prog rock in a vein similar to that found in previous album Aureate Gloom. It’s also quite similar to False Priest, which was decently electronic and shamefully underrated, though Innocence Reaches is not as funky. Many tracks hint back to an earlier era, both in musical history and of Montreal’s past. There’s still a dose of psychedelia and a moderate amount of funk, and the band’s original pop sensibilities continue to shine through.
Relationship issues are a major theme in this album. After over a decade of documenting the ups and downs of his relationship with Nina, his ex-wife, Kevin has begun singing about different muses. Ranging from sweet and tentatively upbeat to harsh and callous, his default seems to be painfully cynical of both himself and those he loves. In Innocence Reaches, Kevin conveys a renewed sense of optimism, though one often dampened by this cynicism.
Kicking off the album is “Let’s Relate”, deliciously dancey and one of the album’s strongest tracks. Despite Kevin’s characteristic verbosity and esoteric language, this is a song that would go over well on pop radio. “Summer sobbing in the Père Lachaise sending clicking sounds into the void/ ‘Til I was clear of all reflexive anger and the dodgy ‘hate you’ song”, “Let’s Relate” exudes confidence and hope after an emotional catharsis.
“It’s Different For Girls”, the album’s first single, calls to mind Skeletal Lamping era of Montreal with its funky background vocals and synths. The music video featuring a flamboyant dance contest with people holding signs saying “Love”, “HOT!”, etc., however, I find pretty cheesy (though others may feel differently). of Montreal has challenged gender norms since the early 2000s with Kevin expressing femininity at a time when indie rock bands were so disproportionately masculine and heteronormative. When of Montreal addressed gender issues directly I didn’t expect it would be through such an uncompelling music video. of Montreal has fallen short on quite a number of their music videos though, with the exception of some standouts like “Gronlandic Edit” and “Id Engager”. It’s welcoming to see of Montreal comment on the double standards women face; “It’s different for girls // From when they are children // They’re depersonalized // Aggressively objectified”, but I sense a hint of sarcasm as well.
As suggested by the title, “Gratuitous Abysses” is an anthem for the perks of separation and distance. It accurately and comically depicts the frustration of wanting to move on while still having feelings; “Like a flittering squirming dying insect you got glued to your ceiling/ I know I’m as rotten as a Chytilovián Daisy but I still got feelings.” The track has a solid guitar base and vocals incorporating a bit of a Marc Bolan-esque warble. “Les Chants of Maldoror” and “Chaos Arpeggiating” are two of the other most rock-infused tracks. Though excellent, these tracks run the danger of being overlooked in the shadow of the album’s poppier songs. “Les Chants de Maldoror” is a prog track with a superb ending featuring a jammy guitar solo and chaotically overlapping reverbed vocals. One line that really sticks out is “Our love was a purity until mundanity struck.” “Chaos Arpeggiating” incorporates violin and verges on baroque pop, with an air of the late 1960s.
“My Fair Lady” laments lost love, bitterly. The song seems to suggest hope, but is soaked in despair; the echoes of “Can’t you change?” at the end seem to be more rhetorical than anything. Fluttering flutes add grace, and saxophones at the end augment the funk of the bass line. Kevin’s deadbeat singing here couples with dark lyrics in a rather unsettling way, but it works.
“A Sport and a Pastime” sounds like something you could play at the club, but its highly processed sound is also interspersed with natural vocals and oohs, which give a refreshing touch in a way similar to adding fresh fruit juice to seltzer. The outro is spectacularly electronic with a stuttering distortion of vocals over simple computerized percussion. “A Sport and a Pastime” covers the nearly universally recognizable theme of wanting to be with someone and impress them but fearing they’re too good for you and won’t be interested. Here and in many other points in Innocence Reaches, Kevin seems more eager to please and be appreciated by love interests than in the past; in a way, this is reminiscent of earlier songs dealing with the sadness and anxiety caused by the chronic unrequited love that plagued his young adulthood before meeting Nina.
While the intro of “Ambassador Bridge” would sound right at home in a Bee Gees disco song, the track soon becomes more ominous and shifts to a staccato bass and minimal percussion, adding rhythm to relaxed singing. Though about the joy of being with his love interest, the whole affair sounds rather sorrowful and keeps up of Montreal’s habit of coupling dark lyrics with happy sounding songs and vice-versa.
A mixture of the band’s styles on Aureate Gloom and False Priest, “Def Pacts” is part self-deprecating frustration and part hopeful yet discouraged, all encapsulated in shimmery shoegaze. In “Nursing Slopes”, Kevin truly owns up to his own flaws and relationship missteps. “The feria is over” and he knows it; “I’ve lost my best friend though I see you almost every day.” “Nursing Slopes” features a glittering ballet music box-like background over a bouncy bass beat and the simplicity really highlights the lyrics, which are exquisitely sad.
The penultimate track, “Trashed Exes”, is one of the most processed and impressively mixed songs on the album; the sharpness of the stark, crisp electronic background and Kevin’s soft falsetto-studded vocals complement each other perfectly. As the song progresses and intensity builds, he shifts to the sing/talk style he so often employs, which he pulls off much more successfully than most. And then, comes the last song, “Chap Pilot”, which strongly reminds me of Paralytic Stalks in rhythm and dreariness. Experimental but still very melodic, this finale features staccato background vocals and a slight drone to the ending with complex, nearly impossible to interpret lyrics.
I have mixed final thoughts on the album, though I love the addition of EDM to of Montreal’s repertoire. Innocence Reaches provides songs that could be played at a party without evacuating the dance floor, and the more rock-oriented songs on the album are thoughtfully done. It’s definitely a great listen, but could also flow better and be more cohesive. And while writing about his relationships must be therapeutic for Kevin, it would also be nice to explore a new subject. “Am I on the verge of a really big breakthrough or just another meltdown?” Kevin asks in “Gratuitous Abysses”. It seems like it could go either way. of Montreal has released excellent albums and explored different styles consistently for two decades with no major missteps; Innocence Reaches is a solid album and the more I’ve listened to it the more nuances I’ve discovered. Having such strong pop appeal at many points, this is an album that could be enjoyed by listeners previously unfamiliar with the band, giving of Montreal more of the attention they deserve; the catchy melodies and greater accessibility can draw you in before you realize how dark much of it is.
RIYL: Elephant 6 Collective, Flume, The Knife, relationship issues
BEST TRACKS: 1, 4, 8, 10, 11