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Music as Discourse

9 Nov

My sophomore year at the U of M, I enrolled in an upper level Cultural Studies course called “Music as Discourse.” We spent the large part of a winter digging deep into pieces of music – Laurie Anderson’s O Superman, a version of Oh Danny Boy as sung by an Irish folk singer whose name has faded into the unreadable makeup of my memory, Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, even Sir Mix-a-lot. We discussed authenticity versus superficiality, and how two almost identical songs can leave the listener feeling wholly different based on a variety of almost indeterminate factors. I took a test, got a B+ (which I am legitimately proud of, as my CLA adviser was taking the same class and could only manage a C), and moved on with college life. I have not directly applied the skills I was taught in that class in life, but if there was ever a chance to do so, I give you the new Of Montreal album, Skeletal Lamping.

To start with the title – Kevin Barnes (who pretty much is Of Montreal, at least in the studio) says, “This record is my attempt to bring all of my puzzling, contradicting, disturbing, humorous…fantasies, ruminations and observations to the surface, so that I can better dissect and understand their reason for being in my head. Hence the title, Skeletal Lamping. Lamping is the name of a rather dreadful hunting technique where, hunters go into the forest at night, flood an area in light, then shoot, or capture, the animals as they panic and run from their hiding places.”

All right, good! Even Kevin seems to understand that making puzzling, contradicting, disturbing music is, how does one say, not commercially viable. This unflinching chaos and confusion (sexual and otherwise) is this fully realized and difficult album’s main strength, and perhaps, if you’re not into non-linear post-gender meta-intellectual sex philosophy, you’ll find it to be the biggest weakness as well. That, and the beautifully poppy hooks that emerge from the sea of Barnes only last about 30 seconds on average, before moving on to some darker place (al beit momentarily – the last track on the album is an undeniable runway romp, complete with the empty eyes and turns of the runway model.)

Lyrics from the track Women’s Studies Victims:
They had painted her face like a man’s mistake,
like a mental state gang banging
A sad return to the eagle-shaped mirror
I’m the kind of mannequin that cheats and
opens its eyes to the ladies of the spread.

She took me home and spit in my drink
She spoke of Jermaine Grier and freedom I don’t know what to think
I took her standing in the kitchen ass against the sink
She draped me in a stole
(what kind?) I think Malaysian mink
She threw me out into the snow; I waited for the bus
Up come some values voters screaming, ‘are you one of us’
I said of course man, can’t you see I’ve got some text reconstruction?
(What does that mean?)
No clue
It must be an illicit pentagram
(What are you talking about?)
No clue

And if this doesn’t make any sense out of context, some background. Midway through the last Of Montreal album, in the midst of a 12-minute long breakdown, Kevin Barnes allegedly becomes Georgie Fruit, a black man in his late forties who has been through multiple sex changes. Barnes has often taken on the Georgie Fruit stage persona (complete with cross-dressing and memorably captured last year by Pitchfork photographers in Vegas, full frontal nudity – showing us that Mr. Barnes, at least, has not himself undergone any outwardly evident gender shifts.) This album marks the first that he has written entirely in the voice of his alter ego. It’s hard not to think of Ziggy Stardust in this context, but I think there’s something more interesting going on here – Bowie and Barnes are quite different, both in sex appeal and personal background, and to simplify for the sake of simplifying would be a mistake.

Which brings us back to the album again! There is no simplification here – how amazing, in this day and age of sound bites and 3 minute hits, is that? There is no condescension present either, which for me is the key to this album’s success. What makes this an authentic experience? Is it arbitrary? For me, it’s the intense focus and darkness present throughout the album that keeps it from treading over the line of indulgence. The moment you might get a whiff of Mr. Barnes being “clever,” or making music like an “asshole,” would be the moment you might turn off to the album. In my opinion (certainly not shared by all), this moment of turn-off does not happen. I’ve listened to it over and over, first on headphones on an Amtrak train, watching the trees and buildings flash by in hypnotic fashion, listening the album and remaining vulnerable and open to it even after two straight minutes of stomach turning repetitious “CD Skipping” guitar riffs. There’s a narrative somewhere, and the beautiful moments that you try so hard to hold onto the first few listens become somehow larger and warmer and more humanistic in repeat visits to the album.

If I had a thesis due, I’d pick this album to write about.
If I want to be transported and introspectively uncomfortable, I’ll listen to this album.
If I want to make my guests comfortable at a party, I would probably NOT play this album.

Still – if you haven’t listened to it yet, come on over and we’ll have a listening party. It’s well worth the hour of your time, even if you end up hating it. Challenge is good. Difficulty is good. Yes we can.

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