Album Review: Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?

Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes is one of the few songwriters to have created his/her own little universe. His Catch-22-like approach to music has introduced eager listeners to dark and colorful characters such as Mr. Edminton, Mr. Lemingworth, Isabel Liam, the comedic duo Dorthy and Edward, the lovers Coquelicot and Claude, the brilliant inventor Lecithine, Rose Robert, Mr. Lynn, Mimi Merlot, Detective Dulllight, the archer Penelope, and the two-headed hyena cicadas and the children they hungrily devour (I could go on, since these come from only one album).

To say Barnes is a unique writer is inaccurate. His universe isn’t any more special than those of Kurt Vonnegut, J.R.R. Tolkien, Hayao Miyazaki, or Banksy. What makes Barnes a marvel is how he is able to present and adapt his universe around some of the most challenging pop music ever constructed. At times, Barnes is a storyteller first, and at times the hooks and handclaps take precedence, but he is able to juggle both with aplomb like the multi-talented circus freaks he puppets.

Barnes may be on another level as a songwriter, but he is human, a human who suffered a difficult separation from his wife. His next move was obvious, and like every other heartbroken musician, he couldn’t resist to write the buzzkill work in every artist’s arsenal: the breakup album.

Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer is Of Montreal’s breakup album, and quite possibly the only sign of that label is the complete implosion of Barnes’s universe. On previous works, he never shies away in gossiping about his own characters, deflecting attention away from himself for the health of his lamplight fiction. Hissing Fauna shows no narrative structure for the first half of the album, and in its place Barnes presents a bizarre introspection of his fluctuating sanity since his divorce, all in tune to even more bizarre geek disco.

Barnes manages to insert the words emasculate, emaciate, and vicissitude (which I’m not convinced is a word) and one of the greatest vocal hooks I’ve ever heard in the opener “Suffer For Fashion”. “If we’ve got to burn out, let’s do it together” he sings, and by the end of the track, he sounds like the karaoke singer who is about to dry the tears he felled on a barroom stage.

The two ridiculously named tracks “Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse” and “A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsgiver” are quite possibly the darkest disco sensations to ever be penned. In the former, Barnes shouts “CHEMICALS!” as if his heart is bursting out of his chest, Looney Toons style, and one can only wonder whether anyone has ever felt that passionately about anti-depressants. The latter begins with him singing, “I spent the winter on the edge of a total breakdown”, and then following with the happiest sing-a-long melody this side of Saturday Night Fever. The strangeness of the lyrics coupled with unparalleled danceability makes for a weird combination, making Barnes sing like a dada Barry Gibb. He has always been able to melt hearts; in these two he also succeeds in melting clocks.

The album isn’t entirely about Barnes, however (that would be silly). During the eleven-plus minute “The Past is a Grotesque Animal”, the heartsick Barnes makes an eerie transformation into his glam-rock metrosexual alter-ego, Georgie Fruit. “Grotesque Animal” is a significant departure from the band’s signature sound. It’s dark from all angles, rambling, not nearly as fun as anything else on the album, and still enthralling to listen to. It sounds like the song a frustrated DJ plays to kill the party he is hosting, and though Fruit introduces himself as more foul and loathsome than Barnes, he ends up being more charismatic and interesting than Barnes ever was.

Fruit chooses to do more storytelling than Barnes, and his stories sound like the drunken escapades of an underpaid drag queen. On “Bunny Ain’t No Kind of Rider”, he declares to an admirer, “Eva, you will never have me/to me your just some faggy girl/and I need a lover with soul power.” Fruit’s pompous attitude continues on “Labyrinthian Pomp,” this time displaying how he can be just as weird as that contemplative crybaby Barnes. On “She’s A Rejector,” the listener starts to get the feel that Fruit and Barnes are more alike than first realized, and on the final cut, the also ridiculously named “We Were Born the Mutants Again with Leafling,” the comparisons are all but inescapable. Fruit ends the album with its best hook by singing, “there’s only now/no ever after/we won’t let it end in disaster/you are my twin, no, I will never go there.” Barnes and Fruit are not the same artist, but just like Ziggy Stardust and David Bowie, they possess a shared genius with pop construction.

Despite the mind-altering peaks, Hissing Fauna has its low points, but even on its weak tracks there are still moments of brilliance. On the dull “Cato as a Pun,” Barnes ends by cutting the ascending instrumentation and chillingly whispering, “Is that too much to ask?” Fruit also has his lows, but even on the hypersexed “Faberge Falls for Shuggle,” he still manages to keep character while singing “those with the golden axe have tried to tell me the sex in my walk is cotton soft.” If there were any time Fruit deserves glitter and stilettoes, it would be now.

Hissing Fauna is not a classic album, regardless of its staying power on the dance floor and brilliantly executed concept. There are too many boring moments, and dance albums often have a difficult time remaining amongst the favorites of record collectors. Its most admirable achievement, however, is its ability to persuade the listener that what Barnes is going through is real, to the point where pangs of sympathy for his mythical alter ego seem natural. After a decade of entertaining his listeners with fairy tales and whimsical verses, Barnes finally found the one character with enough complexity to be the king of his weird universe: himself.

Here’s a little something from Barnes:

And from Fruit:

 

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3 Comments

  1. Ha..ha…Of Montreal sound like the audio version of a kaleidoscope…..

  2. hence the album art anata…

  3. whoa-didn’t event realize that…….

    Sorry about that-now it seems rather obvious


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