February 2, 2007

Shortcuts—Of Montreal's Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?

“Suffer for Fashion,” the first song on Of Montreal’s new album, opens with a gently strummed acoustic guitar; for five seconds, it sounds like it could be any modern indie-rock group. From this point on, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? is something else entirely. The band erupts into a disco stomp with reckless abandon, and Kevin Barnes delivers a cryptic but anthemic-sounding first line: “We just want to emote till we’re dead/ I know we suffer for fashion or whatever.” His high-gloss, multi-tracked vocal shimmers over a catchy synthesizer-driven melody while the bass line anchors the song in a powerful groove. At just under three minutes, it’s a great track that’s over all too soon, but the album only gets better—and stranger.

Barnes has said in interviews that this is a concept album tracing his metamorphosis into a musical alter ego named Georgie Fruit. I’ve been playing it regularly for months without picking up on that element, but the musical debt it owes to Ziggy Stardust–era Bowie is hard to miss, with the more guitar-heavy songs (“Cato as a Pun,” “She’s a Rejecter”) wearing glam rock’s influence on their sleeves. Lyrically, Hissing Fauna is dominated by themes of estrangement and heartbreak; Barnes lashes out at the world like Alex Chilton in his prime while dropping references to Norwegian black metal.

The band races through the first half-dozen songs without pausing for breath, churning out one effortless melody after another, all built around programmed drum beats and monster keyboard riffs. At the heart of the album is the epic “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal,” a 12-minute locked groove punctuated by eerie synth blasts that builds and builds but sputters at the finish line, failing to provide a climactic hook or chorus to release the tension. Still, it’s a remarkable experiment that adds variety to the record without sacrificing momentum.

Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? should dispel any doubt that Barnes is working on a different level from his indie-pop contemporaries. Hook-filled, danceable songs remain his stock in trade, but the contrast between the music and the angry, misanthropic bent of his lyrics is what makes this record so compelling. Carrying on in the tradition of Big Star, Wire and XTC, Of Montreal undercut their perfect pop with anxiety and alienation.