Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Recording engineered by Grant Johnson at Good Danny's, Austin, Texas
The greatness of Kevin Barnes, whether you want to believe it or not, has always been in his words. As the stage outfits and production have gotten more and more flowery, elaborate and extensive, everything has gotten grander and showier. It's become HUGE, some off-off-Broadway production of the feelings of a fey bookworm of a man who just so happens to have the chops to create palatial orchestrations that turn bananas and then back in blinks. As this has all happened, we wonder if the words that he writes and the sentiments that he conveys are getting lost on most listeners, willing just to be swallowed up in the swirling and whirring of the creamy middle. Pulling back on the production a little and keeping the lyrics in context is a great thing to do with Barnes and this session - along with the band's original session nearly seven years ago - are perfect examples of just how complex every aspect of an Of Montreal song is.
Recorded on a late morning in Austin, toward the tail-end of this spring's South By Southwest festival week, Barnes stopped by the studio solo, to play this collection of songs on the lonesome upright piano that had gotten little love most of the week. He arrived early and spent a half an hour just fluttering along on the keys, working the songs out, singing lightly to himself to move his morning voice to a point where it needed to be. Always a quiet man, the slightly shy Barnes is never that way with the expressive words that he writes and sings, offering a view of himself that has been converted from whimsical tales of bugs, birds and other creatures to something absolutely heartbreakingly human.
Even with all of the pomp and the circumstance that he surrounds himself and his shows with, Barnes has never been more bare or revealing. His songs are remarkably raw when they're able to be listened to in a stripped down setting like this one. You can see a person racked with insecurity issues that are surprisingly healthy, or at least being dealt with. Barnes sings, "Can't survive another comedown day/When the spirit houses so much pain/So much bitterness/So much bitterness/I need to teach myself to feel again/Somehow I lost the thread of being human/Rotting in this bitterness/Too much bitterness," on "Wintered Debts," but is later reassured by a clergyman that he won't starve today, that things will be fine, despite the bleakness. The person whom we hear singing is stark and incredibly damaged, but still right enough emotionally to know when everything's just a little off-center and tipping the wrong way, slanting into the flames.
This person is aware of the hypocritical and perverse ways of the land, the serrated behavior of people, the bifurcated personalities that roam. The person that we hear singing is getting by, but they've been criticized and picked at "like an old chicken bone." Barnes sings, "You've ruined me/You're a terrorist/I'm a casualty of you…/Everything is wrong/I'm a casualty of you." Things have been worse. Things might get better.
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Of Montreal Official Site