Kevin Barnes’ malady has come on slowly, like cases of chronic falsetto so often, so tragically, do. He got to the conspicuous R&B mindset of Of Montreal’s 10th full-length, False Priest, in half-steps, with his 00s albums progressively lending more and more time to 70s funk workouts and silly, slutty Prince-via-Beck lover-man croons. That was easy enough to accept in the context of something like 2007’s cracked, glam career highlight, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? Vintage Parliament-style funk was always pretty glam, what with the sparkling pants and spaceships and all. A year later the booty-shake quotient was upped, but the the resulting Skeletal Lamping was such a scattered, yet only fleetingly awesome jumble that every stylistic turn was slightly more likely to produce patience-trying dreck than a world-class hook (the early chorus to “Plastis Wafer,” for example, is an all-time classic lust-declaration amid a lost-at-sea drone). False Priest fully reverses Hissing Fauna’s ratio of glitter-guitar to trunk-funk, and as such is already being hailed as a sort of triumphant climax, a background influence now in full bloom. But listening to “Like a Tourist,” hearing the strained high notes Barnes uses to wheeze the clunky psychobabble snippet, “You-ooo fet-i-shize the arch-e-types,” and all the unfair things that have been said about his work for the past few years suddenly seem like prophecy just waiting to be fulfilled. It’s over-wordy, over-labored, and grating at a point in his career where he’s experienced enough to phone it in.
How far out-of-step Barnes is with the actual cutting-edge of R&B was exposed earlier this year by his sore-thumb songwriting contribution to Janelle Monae’s otherwise consistently thrilling Arch Android. All over that album, she defines what R&B means in 2010 and, as it happened, spastic nerd shit strains the definition. Guest turns from Monae and Solange Knowles feature prominently on False Priest. Both sing Barnes’ words with a graceful professionalism that outshines his mania. As clever as “Sex Karma” is to have Beyonce’s kid-sis singing the “Ring the Alarm”-subverting line, “You are my only luxury item, anyone try to steal you, I’ll fight ‘em,” and as winning as her girlish warmth makes his certifiably catchy chorus, when you hear that high-concept weirdo sitting uneasily next to her effortless glide, the song still ends up as exhibit A that he can’t quite hang in this genre. He’s got soul power, sure, but he’s not a soul singer.
Barnes is too talented a songwriter to put out an album containing nothing to recommend. First single “Coquet Coquette” is really, really good, maybe his tightest distillation of riff-drunk glam yet. “Famine Affair” is restless in an exciting way, switching from mopey 80s guitar through a disco detour back to an enormous 90s-alt-rock crunch, all in service of a deflated and relatable lyric. That both highlights feature a more relaxed, natural vocal tone than the castrati-on-coke funk tracks is nothing like a coincidence. Of Montreal’s four-album run to here has contained an amazing string of far-flung pop moments that earn him lifelong cred. The tighter aesthetic range and more consistently overbearing persona of False Priest is an albatross, not a victory-lap.