My first encounter with of Montreal‘s 2008 album Skeletal Lamping was a bewildering experience. For anyone unfamiliar with it, its apparent 15 tracks are nothing but a ruse; in fact, there are many more than that, the album lurching between portions of song, seeking neither clarity nor indeed coherence. On the one hand, there’s something maddening about it, but what Skeletal Lamping projected most was a riotous celebration of the sheer joy of song-making, the jump-cuts so many signs of unbounded enthusiasm. For all its structural oddness, it was nonetheless irresistable, carrying the audience along on an unstoppable tide of invention. Their new album, False Priest, unleashed earlier this week, is therefore among the releases that i’ve been most excitedly ancitipating this year.
First things first: False Priest‘s 13 tracks are (almost) all present and correct in their entirety; of Montreal—as one might have guessed, considering their highly evolutionary history—have wisely not attempted to repeat past experiments. If anything, what songwriter Kevin Barnes has done in this new outpouring is find ways to incorporate the kind of stylistic eclecticism heard on Skeletal Lamping into cogent songs positively aching with exuberance. There’s undeniably a powerful sense of past musics informing each song at its deepest level, but while in the hands of lesser bands this can become a kind of shallow pastiche bordering on a piss-take (sadly, the road down which Scissor Sisters seem determined to travel), of Montreal’s unbridled imagination takes the essence of former idioms rather than just their surface gloss, and the result—for all its apparent ‘retro’ chic—is unequivocably new.
All of this is admirably demonstrated in the opening track, “I Feel Ya’ Strutter”, a song almost ridiculously elastic in structure, turning down blind 4-bar alleys, suggesting middle 8s that are anything but; in short, it wonderfully turns conventions of song-structure on its head, the chorus being the only semblance of familiarity in this respect. Kevin Barnes has turned his post-Prince madcap crooning into an art, heard to splendid effect in “Our Riotous Defects”, where he also narrates an irritated, even embittered open letter to an old flame: “In my head you were like this goddess, but, in fact, you’re just a crazy girl”. If this is a break-up song (and it could be), it’s one of the most triumphant ever written. and then, the first real highlight in “Coquet Coquette”, a pounding guitar-driven number that first saw light of day a couple of months back as a single (available here but, irritatingly, only through US iTunes). It’s unstoppable, utterly sure of itself, so much so that it’s prepared to spend the entire last third of its duration as an instrumental, revelling more and more in the music from earlier. “Godly Intersex” turns down the tempo, and while the song lacks some of the overt melodic identity heard elsewhere, the lyrics are potent, the delivery of which towards the end (“I was running home from school…”) brings to mind, of all people, Roger Waters. “Enemy Gene” introduces a noir touch for its verses (enhanced by a soft, low melody), driven away by the brightness and colour of its happy chorus, laden with playful arpeggios and strident organ chords. It also demonstrates the band’s impressive use of harmony, turning the song into nothing less than a tonal sojourn. “Hydra Fancies” is embellished with some hysterically camp backing vocals; this, combined with its potent funky bassline, makes for the album’s most notably ’70s moment, but the sharp contemporary edge keeps it forever sounding fresh. After which comes False Priest‘s indubitable highlight: “Like A Tourist” is a perfectly-judged synthesis of decades of music: ’90s rock trappings suffused with ’00s gritty electronica and ’70s synths, topped off with a deliciously incongruous ’80s pop chorus. It may just be the best song of Montreal have ever made; it’s certainly one of the best i’ve heard by anyone.
The latter half of the album begins with a couple of not quite so engaging tracks (“Sex Karma” and “Girl Named Hello”); this is not to say they’re not good—far from it—but in the wake of such outstanding music they simply make a slightly less coherent, lacklustre impression. The album’s final quartet of songs makes up for this though; “Famine Affair” returns to the energy of “Like A Tourist”, although more single-minded in style, focused on the ’80s. The song’s punchy bassline highlights how much False Priest as a whole feels as though careful attention has been given to the bottom end of the sonic spectrum; while never excessive, the bass throughout is demonstrative, adding an extra layer of excitement. “Casualty of You” is the album’s most laid-back song, a piano-prominent ballad; Barnes’ imagination almost goes too far here, the central melody at times seemingly lost in the plethora of sounds swirling around, but it ultimately hangs together, culminating in a lovely conclusion in which everything is dispersed into the ether. The elements are obfuscated somewhat in “Around The Way” too, even more so due to its narrow stereo field; it maintains a familiar demeanour until (literally) the last minute, when the stereo field is abruptly widened in a complex, lengthy coda, an overlapping string texture growing in intensity. False Priest ends with “You Do Mutilate?”, that initially returns to the clarity and lightness of earlier tracks; but then—gasp!—the spectre of Skeletal Lamping returns three minutes in, the track abruptly shifting into a slower song with distinct urban overtones, Barnes’ voice strained through a vocoder. It’s a delightful final twist, the album remaining in this curiously unexpected style (significantly heavier than elsewhere) until the end.
This has to be one of the best albums of 2010; not just highly recommended, this is essential listening.