What with the 50-cent-words-in-odd-syntax song titles and its construct of being an album from the point of view of a black transsexual named Georgie Fruit and its supposed inspiration in the writings of Jean Genet and its songs that shift wildly in tempo, key and meter seemingly at whim, it’s some kind of miracle that Of Montreal’s Skeletal Lamping largely manages to justify its self-indulgence. As with each of the band’s previous efforts, there’s an aspect of children of privilege playing underclass dress-up, but playing dress-up is one of the things that Kevin Barnes, the multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter in gold lamé hot pants who more or less makes up the band, does with real aplomb, and it makes for an album that’s compelling both in its themes and in its execution.
Here, Barnes offers something of a treatise on modern sexual politics, presented from a host of different perspectives: a prostitute, a prude, the aforementioned tranny. At times, Barnes’s narrators are lustful (“I want to make you come 200 times a day,” on “Gallery Piece”), violent (“I took her in the kitchen, ass against the sink,” on “Women’s Studies Victims”), and submissive (“We can do it softcore if you want/But you should know that I go both ways,” on “For Our Elegant Castle”), making for songs that play as a comprehensive survey of sexual attitudes. There’s a definite candor to these songs, a fearlessness in challenging conventional sexuality that often recalls Prince at his peak. But Barnes doesn’t explore any one of these points of view in extensive depth, which limits the number of buttons he can push.
Instead, Barnes’s more ADHD approach flits between ideas with little warning. Though he can still construct a mean pop hook (the funk-inspired single “Id Engager” and horn-driven “An Eluardian Instance” build upon the dance rhythms of the last Of Montreal album, 2007’s excellent Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?), the songs here show Barnes’s willingness to toy with rigid structures. “Plastis Wafer” is a triptych that devolves into dissonance in its final three minutes, while “Beware Our Nublie Miscreants” boasts no less than nine distinct movements in its five minutes. As a reflection of the album’s themes of fluid sexual desire, that approach is a bit too heavy-handed to function as a sophisticated, macro-level balance between form and content, but it does impose a semblance of order on shifts in tone that might otherwise seem shapeless.
Taken in isolation, the individual movements in these songs and the different voices of the narrators are never less than engaging. While it might be more compelling to see if Barnes could sustain those individual movements in a way that suggests a more ambitious, Brian Wilson-style compositional bent or if he could delve into any one of these constructs of modern sexual mores in greater depth, it’s also difficult to fault Barnes for the audacity and the breadth of ideas he does display on Skeletal Lamping. If it’s perhaps too easy to dismiss as shallow, empty spectacle, at least Barnes and his band know how to put on a better show than just about any of their contemporaries.