Kevin Barnes is an embodiment of everything inside you that makes no sense but turns you on at the same time. He and Of Montreal are a group of Ids that have been taught critical theory filtered through spam emails. Of Montreal don’t do drugs; they are drugs. Seeing them live is the sonic and visual equivalent of accidentally eating your roommate’s pot brownies, but everything goes perfectly. But really, they’re just a bunch of damn good musicians with odd lyrics and a warped stage show.
Of Montreal invite metaphors of madness. Their lyrical content is a mix of random imagery, descriptions of inner mental turmoil, high-level nuggets of theory and erotica so unsubtle you could imagine it in fan fiction. But focusing on just how weird that little dude is detracts from another central fact of the group: they are one of the most professional live acts out there. Nearly every song in every show is executed with both precision and passion, and they cover a range of styles that brings to mind the versatility of the Talking Heads or The Clash.
A band with as strong a cult following and as engagingly manic visuals as Of Montreal could afford to phone it in sometimes, but Of Montreal manifestly does not, and that was on display at the Cedar last Friday night.
After being introduced as “the only man who was born after he died” by a Lucadore-suited mystery man, Barnes and company took the stage, opening with “Triumph of Disintegration” from their latest album “Lousy with Sylvianbriar.” The record is something different, recorded without the aid of the computer alternations and without the elaborate, meticulously planned song structures that characterize their earlier work. Many of the tracks from the album took on a blues-y vibe when performed live, and the songs had a traditional and simple instrumental structure, if not lyrical content. The opening line of the show was “The last ten days have been a motherfucker,” and the central premise of the song was “I had to make myself a monster just to feel something ugly enough to be true/”
“Belle Glade Missionaries” exemplified this new sound, built around the same simple repeated guitar riff and drum beat for most of the song. Unfortunately, this song provided the one example where the visuals and lyrics of a song combined to “send a message” (possibly unintentionally) when Barnes crooned “For all the evil in the world/ there are no victims only participants” as jackbooted soldiers filtering yellow and purple were projected on the screen behind him. It was far too on-the-nose and not nearly dissociative enough for my taste, but they redeemed themselves with a solo riff that rocked hard and remarkably free of pretense.
The strongest new song of the night was untitled and not yet released. It was almost country-western in feeling, with clean harmonies and haunting, lingering guitar that made me look around stage to double-check that no one had brought out a lap steel. Oh, and while this was going on there were three human moths on stage with silver wings projected with images of multi-colored skulls and Mandelbrot sets—fairly typical stuff.
Though their new material provided something distinctive and fresh, the strongest part of the show was a quartet of the hits that closed the set. A tense and speedy rendition of “For Our Elegant Caste” opened it up and appropriately got people to dance like a bunch of beautiful babies. Then came “Plastis Wafer,” which I would describe as inappropriate for the five or so children in the audience. As a 10-second loop of two people sloppily making out played in the background, the now-shirtless Barnes made us all feel like his “loverface” and let us know we were the only one “with whom [he] would role-play Oedipus Rex.”
As Barnes briefly left the stage, the band filled in a few minutes with ambient synth, fractals and liberal use of the triangle. He returned as a 12-foot ghost king, a Jeff Koons children’s halloween costume complete with all the psychedelic trappings. He performed “Oslo in the Summertime,” his reverberating voice blending with shredding synth to create a beautiful and visceral vibration. Even in a ridiculous costume, Barnes remained a professional.
The band ended the set with “Heimdalsgate Like A Promethean Curse” (which you probably know as “Come On Chemicals”). They played with a level of abandon that usually leads to bad performances, where a band plays a song everyone knows really hard and no one in the crowd notices or cares that it’s sloppy or dull. Every groove was in place, the energy of dancing through your demons remained authentically palpable, and there never seemed to be the usual trade-off between high-powered irreverence and precise control.
As the encore ended with a similarly destructive and well-put-together rendition of “She’s a Rejector,” it reminded me that, despite the ridiculousness of crowd-surfing two Spandex Tuxedo’d Angels of Death, Of Montreal is awesome because they’re awesome, not just because they’re weird.