A Google search for ‘Of Montreal Prince’ returns 34,400,000 results. Of course, not every single one of the se entries will tell you all that much about either the rock band from Athens, Georgia, nor to Minneapolis’s most famous son. Plenty remain though that keep the two in direct contact, as if the idea of referring to Of Montreal without invoking their secret lineage is pure absurdity: the writers of the world working together to uncover a mysterious, unseen umbilical cord tying Prince and bandleader and sole constant member within Of Montreal Kevin Barnes together permanently.
Point being: Aureate Gloom might be the point where we have to stop this association once and for all. A few reasons for this state of affairs, the most glaring that Aureate Gloom marks the point where Of Montreal become truly, finally hermetic. Across a career that has moved from twee pop to freaked-out synth-prog and delirious funk before shifting into the dark neo-classical experiments of Paralytic Stalks and the fried, psychedelic singer-songwriter-isms of Lousy With Sylvianbriar, the momentum has been constant. In getting his current band, the same set of new recruits that produced the left-turn of Sylvianbriar, to bring some of the funk back, Barnes has somehow arrived at perhaps the closest thing to a ‘typical’ Of Montreal album there’s ever been. The extended, mysticism-fuelled song titles, those long, winding melodies of which Barnes remains so fond, that razor-blade balance between giddy surrealism and psychic terror – all present and correct here.
Speaking of which – here lies another, more unwelcome, point of repetition. Fan favourite Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer was the dramatization of Barnes’ (temporary) separation from his wife and fellow band member Nina and a period of masochistic-posing-as-cathartic debauchery. This lurid, tormented record traced along the fault lines of a disintegrating relationship, before finally hitting the self-destruct button during The Past is a Grotesque Animal, Barnes emerging from the rubble under the pseudonym of the militantly bacchanal Georgie Fruit. Aureate Gloom turns out to be another, this time much more final break-up record. Whatever glimmer of hope laid beneath the surface of Hissing Fauna has been fully extinguished this time around. The sex has been dialled down, the fantasy revoked in the face of unpalatable realities. Aureate Gloom is a chronicle of not getting over: if there is a step-by-step programme to adjusting to newly-arrived singledom, then this slab of wax is still stuck firmly at the ranting at the barmaid at a dive joint at four in the morning stage of proceedings.
Not to say that this is a record entirely lacking in enjoyment for the listener, for even on a purely sonic level, the first half of the album finds Barnes on as formidable a form as ever. His uniquely twisting style of songwriting, where songs never go in the direction you expect yet feel utterly natural as they skip carelessly around. Bassem Sabry starts things off in a cloud of distortion fuzz before immediately leaping into a swamp of disco rhythms and chirping synths – the daring and delight of a Barnes arrangement remains fully undiminished. Aluminium Crown offers a damaged, mascara-running take on shoegaze, while Last Rites at the Jane Hotel and the astonishing Empyrean Abattoir toughen up Of Montreal’s take of flighty funk with a hefty dose of Mick Ronson indebted glam rock – bold, beautiful and defiant.
The problem is, this melodically rich and vividly realised first half sets out the scenario of shock and sudden life changes with a delicacy that finds itself tramples over as Aureate Gloom goes on. When Barnes announces “I just don’t know what’s going on” during Virigilian Lots, it proves to be something of an ill omen, as we tumble down the rabbit hole of male ego and jealousy. If we start the record with a real sympathy for Barnes’ heartbreak, by the end you start thinking to yourself, ‘yeah, can see her point really.’ The ‘her’ of this album seems to be coping with her new life much better than our narrator, and this is when he starts seeing red. The escape hatch Barnes used on Hissing Fauna no longer opens: thus thwarted, he just chooses to sit and curdle in his own bitterness instead. From Monolithic Egress onwards, the music slowly gathers an aggressive, pointed punk energy, while Barnes throws up his entitled, unmistakeably egotistical and male rage for all to see: “I’m not a different man / ‘Cause you now call me some fucked up name”, or “When my sight alighted, I was just as shocked / Your new lover like a hearse”, or “Some fucker took what’s mine / Now he’s acting like she’s his”, or pretty much the entirety of Like Ashoka’s Inferno of Memory, or…you get the picture. It becomes incredibly uncomfortable to listen to, at best like accidently stumbling on some terrible private conversation, at worst someone revealing their arsehole-ness for all to see and pretty much revelling in it.
After all this, you wonder: we all really thought this guy was the indie rock Prince? Whatever superficial similarities in sound or arrangement we might like to make, Aureate Gloom reveals a glaring divide in their world view. As much as both songwriters find their inspiration in carnality and the search for the ‘other’, the Prince worldview is one that challenges puritanism and restraint in the search of some higher plain of living, a kind of awakening. He might have called an album Dirty Mind, but the great joy in his music is that no matter how lustful it gets, there’s no shame to be found: he celebrates human desire, writes of it as a way to truly, meaningfully connect with the rest of the human race, and even more as a portal to godhead, or even G-d itself. Check the beatific, pre-Edenic purity of that Lovesexy sleeve again: this is as spiritual and harmonious a musical canon as there has ever been. Barnes meanwhile? Amidst all the intellectual mind games, genre-hopping ingenuity and dictionary-busting imagery, you realise that all this time, he’s actually been terrified of what’s going on in his own songs. He acknowledges a universe of desire (and the universality thereof), but remains untrusting of it all. Little wonder then that when it all starts to go wrong, he turns and condemns pleasure and possibility with such vitriol.
If this has been an unusually personal appraisal of a record, then there’s one person to take it up with, and I don’t refer to myself here. Aureate Gloom is an album that is impossible to listen to without being made fully aware of its creator and their personal peccadillos at every juncture. No room is offered for the listener to create their own story from the raw materials offered, or to form a personal identification with this material. Barnes’ great melodic gifts and his ability to keep transforming his work whilst keeping it recognisable as Of Montreal does allow us a certain context for the missteps made here: every important artist can be granted the odd failed idea. Let’s hope though that through the miasma of pain and anger that this release leaves both Barnes and us and listeners stuck with, some new equilibrium or way forward can be found – for Barnes’ sake most of all.