A lot of crazy shit happened at Of Montreal’s show at the Riviera on Monday, but the craziest thing may have been that it all wasn’t, you know, insane. Sure, some may look at 2008 as the year when front man Kevin Barnes finally lost it, releasing divisive schizo-pop opus Skeletal Lampings and then going on tour that’s one-third rock show and two-thirds nightmare ballet. In Chicago — as he has been doing elsewhere on this tour — he brought a performance troupe, bizarre costumes, stripped down to a bikini-bottom, rubbed himself down with red ink, put on a bath robe, walked himself up a mock-gallows, was hanged, stripped down again, emerged from a coffin-thingy filled with shaving cream and brought his own daughter Alabee on stage to watch the madness.
So yeah, the concert was weird. But it wasn’t psycho pointlessness. Walking away, I felt I had a better sense for what Barnes was trying to do on Skeletal Lamping and, to a lesser extent, its two most recent predecessors (The Sunlandic Twins and Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?). To put it simply, Barnes is ashamed of being a man. He wants to be a sensitive dude who loves his wife and can control his own actions, but his gawdamn libido keeps getting in the way. Barnes has a Freudian view of life, with the id containing all of his manly tendencies and the ego his desire just to be human. That explains why, no matter what costume the performers on stage were wearing — they changed from golden Buddahs to wild west card-sharks to fatigued soldiers to zoo animals — there was always some domineering outcast, taller and brawnier than the other actors, wearing some sort of terrifying mask (tiger, skeleton, football player). And in each skit, the “man” stomped around, either hitting on or just hitting his feminine counterparts until they ganged up and beat him to the ground. There were variations on the basic plot, but the idea was the same: The man is the menace.
And that’s the idea behind Barnes’ recent musical output. He acknowledges he’s a “Woman Studies Victim” with one song title, and a good portion of Skeletal Lamping and Hissing Fauna is narrated from the point of view of the fictional Georgie Fruit — a middle-aged black transsexual who was born a man, had an operation to become a woman, and then switched back to being a man. Fruit stands in for Barnes’ own anxiety about his masculinity, as he constantly veers back and forth between sweetness and lustfulness. This all leaves him with guilt, depression and an ear for fabulous pop hooks.
Monday’s show, though, also showed the weakness in Barnes’ recent artistic direction. It was just too much. Just as on Skeletal Lamping, the music jerked from electro/disco/twee awesomeness into formless noise making and tiresome melody-free passages. As the show went on, things felt more and more muddled, and eventually it seemed that Barnes was less singing than shouting his lyrics. But Of Montreal must have a high-school street team or something: The hordes or teenagers who showed up to the show were absolutely enraptured, dancing and screaming and dolled up in glam outfits no matter what the band was playing. Still, there were plenty of musically amazing moments from Barnes and co. — they brought the house down by closing with “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Plus, the spectacle of it all gave amusement to anyone who wasn’t thrilled by, say, the way that “Plastis Wafers” goes from bubbly Sade-on-steroids to echo-chamber mess in its second half. It’s never a good sign when music needs an entire theater production to make it palatable, but luckily, most of Of Montreal’s output isn’t that way: To be a fan, it’s not that hard to take all the good parts you can get and then sit back and appreciate Barnes’ glammy daddy issues the rest of the time.