Lamping – also known as spotlighting or shining – is a hunting method in which powerful floodlights are used to locate nocturnal animals in the middle of the night. The animals are either picked off or captured as they panic and flee for safety. It’s a brutal, terrifying practice, but OF MONTREAL has adopted the technique – albeit in a strictly metaphorical sense! – on their ninth album, Skeletal Lamping (2008). Over the course of the record’s 15 tracks, Kevin Barnes, the band’s singer and songwriter, shines a light on the deepest, darkest corners of his psyche. He uncovers his freakiest fantasies, revisits his past, and explores seemingly contradictory aspects of his personality. The music is both startling in its specificity and inviting in its universality: Taken as a whole, Skeletal Lamping simulates the labyrinthine complexity of the human consciousness.
Skeletal Lamping may be bizarre, complicated, and dense, but it’s also extremely catchy and packed with slinky grooves that demand a physical response. Whereas most contemporary pop music is comprised of instrumental and lyrical phrases that feel so familiar that a listener can practically complete the singer’s sentences, the songs on this album are refreshingly non-linear.
Instantly ingratiating hooks abound, but Barnes’ compositions are constantly mutating and shape-shifting in ways that defy conventional pop song structure and album sequencing. Nevertheless, the record has its own internal logic, and its many tangents and detours feel entirely intuitive and organic in context. The movements mimic the shapeless, mystifying mingling of thoughts and emotions in the human mind, so even the most deliberately jarring transitions evoke a sudden shift in attention that is recognizable and commonplace, but rarely emulated in mainstream music.
Though of Montreal has never been a stranger to expressing sexuality in its music, Skeletal Lamping finds Barnes and his band fully immersed in the topic. Throughout the record, sexuality is presented as a broad continuum encompassing a wide range of experiences, anxieties, emotions, and orientations. Barnes gives amplification to the multifarious voices in his psyche, and depending on the song, he may be promiscuous or a prude, a romantic or a prostitute, a transsexual or a young straight dude who feels threatened by the sexual experience of his rivals. Barnes openly explores sex and gender roles without insecurity. He attempts to bring all of his fantasies, and terrors, to the surface, so as to better understand the machinery behind them.
In some ways, the album is the natural result of the band’s highly successful tour for their 2007 album, Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?. Though that record was a brutally frank, autobiographical collection of songs about dealing with trauma and depression, the band’s concerts became hedonistic parties that invited the audience to “melt down together” and work out their issues on the dance floor. The group’s experimentation on stage with surreal yet overtly sexual costumes and imagery has informed the playful, uninhibited nature of the lyrics, and the uplifting, inclusive tone of the shows has carried over to the music.
Ultimately, Skeletal Lamping is an empowering record. It rejects the notion of a fixed identity, and encourages the listeners to embrace their contradictions, and to accept that one’s “self” is nebulous and mercurial. Its abrupt shifts in emotions, attitudes, and perspectives may reflect a state of mind that is never quite at peace with itself, but the album makes a strong case that exploration and evolution is a lot more fun and fulfilling than emotional, intellectual, and physical stagnation.