A few merciful examples of Kevin Barnes’ knack for twinkly, sunny pop compositions can’t redeem the half-baked and insipid songwriting on Ur Fun, a low point in of Montreal’s vast discography.
It hurt me a little bit inside to write that review summary there. It would probably be safe to call of Montreal my favourite band ever – 2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer is certainly my favourite album ever made, and I can think of at least five other of Montreal albums which are deeply near to my heart. I’ve long defended Kevin Barnes against accusations of peaking with Hissing Fauna, citing 2008’s Skeletal Lamping, 2012’s Paralytic Stalks, and 2018’s underrated White is Relic / Irrealis Mood as proof of Barnes’ continued musical genius.Barnes has a unique talent for writing manic, confessional pop music, songs assonically watertight as they are lyrically messy and musically schizophrenic.Ur Fun is the first of Montreal album in a very long time without that kaleidoscopic sheen and musical adventurousness. Put simply, for the first time, Kevin Barnes sounds tired.
It’s a shame that he sounds tired, because this was meant to be of Montreal’s most overwhelmingly happy albums in a while. It’s clear that Barnes was aiming for an atmosphere of blissed-out ecstasy, exemplified in theory by his duet with his new soulmate Christina Schneider on mid-album cut "Gypsy That Remains". He never quite gets there, though. Their voices don’t sound particularly good together, and Barnes’ melodic sensibility, usually so focused, is difficult to discern – the chorush as little tune to speak of, until Barnes goes off on an ill-judged vocal run when repeating the song’s title. It’s more annoying than soaring or uplifting or whatever. “Get God’s Attention by Being an Atheist”’s ravey chorus is brashand obnoxious, reminiscent of Ur Fun’s 2016 rival for worst oM album Innocence Reaches, while "Polyaneurism"'s “ai ai ai” nonsense refrain is cloying, its intention obscure.
But perhaps the album’s most glaring flaw is with its lyricism. Barnes has always been a polemicist, polysyllabic and witty even at his most joyful. Ur Fun is an album which opens with “don’t want to go on holiday, I want to educate myself,” and rarely gets any less awkward and woke. I realise it’s contentious that I’m using woke as a negative adjective there; Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly could also be described as woke, and I think as highly of that album as everybody else. But there’s just something faintly embarrassing about Kevin Barnes doing it on this album. When he’s trying very hard to enjoy a polyamorous relationship in “Polyaneurism”, or when he lists off his mental diagnoses in 20th Century Schizofriendic Revengoid Man (title much better than song) like a teenager’s Tumblr bio, he just sounds lost, adrift, desperately trying to keep up with the times. A songwriter as talented as Kevin Barnes has no reason for this. Barnes is at his best when he’s expressing himself on his own completely idiosyncratic terms, not in left-liberal activist language I assume he picked up from and/or from his new twenty something girlfriend.
Alright, that’s the harsh part over. Ur Fun isn’t an irredeemable album. ”You’ve Had Me Everywhere” is rather beautiful, a twinkly pop composition with a tender and loving chorus. The song reminds me of a Skeletal Lamping cut, with the intense horninessreplaced by a mood of nostalgia and affection. It’s a good song. I also enjoyed "Don’t Let Me Die in America", an overblown glam rock song which sees Barnes coolly listing off dead-end towns and cities in America in which he doesn’t want to die. It’s the album’s best example of political consciousness – irreverent lines like “I don’t even want to haunt this place” communicate a mood of political awareness and turmoil much more effectively than those earlier clunky lines incorporating Twitter slang and leftoid jargon. But despite these two highlights, I don’t think I’ll be returning to Ur Fun any time soon.