of Montreal albums have become nearly annual events. The Elephant 6-affiliated band has released a record nearly every year since they formed in 1996, resulting in a prolific and varied discography. Their sound was initially inspired by simplistic ‘60s pop, but has evolved into something more psychedelic, pushing further into the realm of electronic music. They’ve had a revolving door for the musicians in the band as well as genre touchstones, swapping out up to a dozen players over the years. Despite all that turnover, one thing has remained consistent for of Montreal over the years: primary songwriter Kevin Barnes, who has guided the project through these drastic changes. On Innocence Reaches, Barnes delves further into synthesized sound and shoots for quippy commentary in his lyrics, but fails to break new ground.
The record begins with a heavy dose of keyboard, the thick riffs on opening track “Let’s Relate” setting the tone. Barnes and co. expertly drench the arrangements in synthesizers and other whirligigs. Though they never wander completely away from rock song structures, the electronic focus has clearly intensified. The wonky sounds make for more anthemic, even catchier tracks than those on their last few releases. “Let’s Relate” also establishes the record’s central themes, as it seems to grapple most with Barnes’ identity, both in the most genuine sense and the persona he has created through this band. “How do you identify/ How do you ID,” he begins, a question Barnes poses both to the listener and himself.
While of Montreal are known for experimenting sonically on each release, Barnes’ lyrical approach tie things together. His straightforward sing-speak style allows for easy contemplation, even when set against the most intricate backgrounds. In the past, Barnes has translated painful experiences into danceable songs; some of the band’s strongest work came on 2015’s Aureate Gloom in the wake of divorce. Here, Barnes is in a chaotic wrestle with his lovers and identities. It seems ideal grounds for inspiration, and the creative approaches on tracks like the French-filled “Les Chants de Maldoror” or the instrumental unraveling “Chaos Arpeggiating” are the album’s biggest successes. This kind of innovation is missing from the second half of the record, and these songs make the release feel indecisive.
Lyrically, it’s particularly exciting to see the band confront gender. Onstage they have long embraced androgynous clothing and covered themselves in glitter and makeup, but that hasn’t always been the most well-drawn element of the music itself. This record, however, directly addresses the themes, however clumsily. “It’s Different For Girls” attempts to take on masculinity, but the lyrics are more provocative than meditative, and it fails to create a compelling commentary. This lack of conclusive thought is the greatest fault of the album, which never finds any cohesion in either sound or feeling. No two songs sound the same, but instead of the gleeful chaos that previous albums boast, it only feels scattered and searching for an answer.
It’s easy to track of Montreal’s trajectory through their yearly releases, creating a timeline of lineup changes, instrumental alterations, and Barnes’ significant life experiences. While Innocence Reaches continues their solid pop songwriting, it’s difficult to pin the role it might have in either the band’s evolution or Barnes’. It isn’t quite as intricate as Aureate Gloom or Lousy with Sylvanbriar, and it loses some of the manic, colorful spark that perpetuates most of Barnes’ recent work. By lacking any resonant peg and showing little advancement, the record feels like a question mark, a gray spot on the timeline.
Essential Tracks: “Les Chants de Modoror”, “Chaos Arpeggiating”