‘False Priest’ Delivers Contrived Sermon

Of Montreal -- "False Priest" -- Polyvinyl -- 2 STARS

Polyvinyl Records

The ancient Athenians, though mighty, were doomed to destruction and ruin—and by the sounds of their latest album, “False Priest,” it’s happened to modern-day Athenians (of Athens, Ga.) Of Montreal. In previous albums, what stood out was Of Montreal’s utter wackiness, their fearlessness, and their vulgarity; they had the kind of disregard for critics and popular opinion that made them proclaim in their 2008 album “Skeletal Lamping,” “I’m just a black she-male / and I don’t know what you people are all about.” None of this free-spirited nonchalance is to be found i\on their latest LP.

In “False Priest,” Of Montreal play it safe—and the results are decidedly underwhelming. On most of the tracks, Kevin Barnes’s distinctive falsetto gives way to an almost rap-like monotone that could belong to any other garden-variety indie pop band. Perhaps this is a part of Barnes’s flirtation with R&B—the album features Beyoncé’s younger sister Solange Knowles on the track “Sex Karma.” But her vocals, though they add some much-needed variety, fail to lift the track out of banality. Where Barnes once talked about love in lyrics like, “I wanna be your what’s happenin” in “Gallery Piece” from “Skeletal Lamping,” in “Sex Karma” he can only come up with the hackneyed refrain, “You look like a playground to me—player.”

This is just one example of the uninspired lyrics that characterize the whole album. Part of the problem is that “False Priest” struggles under the weight of a hefty moral agenda. If previous albums had social messages to convey, they were better concealed, or at least presented with more panache. In “False Priest,” the moralizing just sounds clumsy. A case in point is the otherwise decent track “Enemy Gene,” in which Barnes asks, “How can we ever evolve / when our gods are so primitive?” By the time the album reaches its final track “You Do Mutilate?” another moral tirade is the last thing the listners want—but it’s precisely what they get. Barnes decides to indulge in one more rant about “genetic telephonic pills,” deriding the pharmaceutical industry.

Even putting aside the lackluster lyrics “False Priest” is disappointing. Of Montreal has never been a singles-oriented band, but every album has had standout tracks verging on mastery. The same cannot be said of “False Priest,” which fails to produce a single classic. Not one of the tracks has the umph of an “Id Engager” or a “Suffer for Fashion.” There are certainly no tracks of the monumental proportions of 12-minute “The Past is a Grotesque Animal” from 2007’s “Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?” Instead, most of the tracks are short; only two tracks out of “False Priest’s” 13 are longer than five minutes, giving the album a feeling of complacency.

“False Priest” does have redeeming moments. In fact, the album starts off promisingly. “Coquet Coquette” has the upbeat, indie electro-pop feel of some of the band’s earlier work. The heavy guitar chords and well-defined chorus distinguish it from the rest of the album. Barnes is actually singing in rhythm, as opposed to speaking straight over the baseline as he does in subsequent tracks. “Like a Tourist” has traces of Of Montreal’s trademark wackiness when it talks of “unicorns eating baby meat.”

But other attempts at the bizarre sound forced. On previous albums, Of Montreal could pull off wacky because it was so effortless. Yet tracks like “Girl Named Hello,” in which Barnes proclaims “I did a line with a girl named Hello,” are too contrived to be convincing. The artificiality reaches a peak on the album’s penultimate track “Around the Way,” which features an interlude in a made-up language. This pretention could be justified if it added anything to the track, but the vaguely Slavic-sounding language is almost indistinguishable from Barnes’s own impassive monotone.

Whereas Barnes pushed boundaries in earlier work, in “False Priest” he seems content to stay in familiar territory. His experiment with R&B and funk yields no remarkable results. The album’s flaws are unwittingly expressed in its title—it sets out to be revelatory, even prophetic, but ends up sounding holier-than-thou. With “False Priest,” instead of Of Montreal’s signature absurdity, we get a poorly conceived sermon.