False Priest continues the descent into funk and R & B territory that Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes began with 2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer, while largely dispensing with the lengthy confessionals of that album and the cut-and-paste structure of its follow-up, 2008’s Skeletal Lamping. While the self-conscious soul-baring and mash-up aesthetic have hardly disappeared, Priest is the most commercial album of Barnes’s career, boasting glossy production (courtesy of Jon Brion) and his most conventionally hooky pop songs to date.
While Brion’s influence isn’t readily palpable here, Barnes use of an outside producer is evident in Priest‘s move away from a home-studio sound. Less claustrophobic and hermetic than his past two albums, it walks a fine line between being satisfyingly robust sound and soul-sucking overproduction. For the most part, however, the collaboration works in Barnes’s favor: opener “I Fell Ya’ Strutter” and the Solange Knowles duet “Sex Karma” are, sonically-speaking, probably the best-sounding tracks of the band’s career, and like several others (“Godly Intersex,” album highlight “Hydra Fancies”) perfectly meld Barnes’s inventiveness and restlessness with Brion’s more commercial sensibility.
At times, Priest sounds like something an Of Montreal greatest hits collection, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing: guitar-driven tracks like “Coquet Coquette” and the Cure-inspired “Famine Affair” recall the pre-funk days of Satanic Panic in the Attic, while others (“Girl Named Hello”) improve upon the choppy and underdeveloped grooves of Skeletal Lamping. Janelle Monáe and Solange Knowles, while lamentably underused, provide a nice contrast to Barnes’s sometimes-grating vocals, and only begin to suggest what Of Montreal might gain from a few extra vocalists. Indeed, here as so often before, Barnes is dragged down most by his lyrics and persona. His descriptions of various characters and relationships, often deployed in a deliberately awkward faux-naïf style but with self-satisfied cleverness, are neither amusing nor moving (see the painful spoken-word verses of “Our Riotous Defects”). His attempts at greater depth and seriousness, meanwhile, as on the album-closing anti-religion diatribe “You Do Mutilate?” are well-intentioned, but come off as gratuitous afterthoughts.
False Priest, whether deliberately or not, feels more like a singles collection than an album. The continuity, both lyrical and musical, that held together Of Montreal’s last two albums is missing here, but certain moments are just as strong or stronger than prior highlights. If one can get past Barnes’s off-putting lyrical moments and the few tracks that seem to merely rehash his past work (“Like a Tourist”), there’s plenty here that attests to his proficiency as a pop songwriter and his ability to craft accessible and immediately rewarding music without resorting to formula or mediocrity. While some may regret Barnes’s toning-done of quirkiness or ambition, False Priest plays to his best qualities while minimizing his weaker ones.