Welcome to Anniversary Records, a column where we reflect on records that meant the world to us way back when, and what they mean to us now. This week: Of Montreal’s Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?.
Anniversary Records: Of Montreal – Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?
by Chad Jewett
Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? is Of Montreal’s eighth album, and also its best. An out-of-nowhere magnum opus for a collective that had already been hard at work for over a decade, the LP arrived as the inaugural release of the Kevin Barnes’ avant-disco makeover of the Athens, Georgia-based project. The way in which the album managed to scoop up and melt together all the versions of “Of Montreal” that Barnes had plied up to that point is almost certainly part of why it works so well, even 10 years later. It took an entire discography of auteur indie pop, then set it to Prince-worshipping dance rock. Of Montreal had already been a lot of things in its first decade existence: a crackly 4-track solo vessel, an indie collective plainly bearing its Elephant 6 connections, an electro-pop band integrating programming and synths just as Dntel and the Postal Service were carving out room in alternative’s mainstream for just that sort of sound.
Even the idea of integrating an acerbic version of funk and disco into indie rock wasn’t quite new by the time Hissing Fauna hit shelves in 2007, preceded as it was by the dance punk of Liars, The Rapture, and Les Savy Fav. The same goes for the self-aware storylines that run throughout Hissing Fauna – the album where Kevin Barnes first debuted his “Georgie Fruit” alter-ego. There’s a less high-concept version of this to be found on Ian Svenonius’ funk-provocateur yelps in The Make-Up and on the winking dance-party hype-man persona that Calvin Johnson slipped into for Dub Narcotic Sound System. But Barnes, from Hissing Fauna onwards, would invest in actually making funk music rather than adapting its most pliable contours; Georgie Fruit became for Barnes a three-dimensional character – described by the Of Montreal leader as a gender-fluid middle-aged African American man – one through whom Barnes would totally reimagine what Of Montreal could be.
And where Svenonius and Johnson have frequently made dance and funk music that seems to strongly communicate a tongue-in-cheek, the genius of the joyfully elastic, groove-heavy Hissing Fauna is that all those disco beats and Sly Stone nods are dedicated to songs about the deepest, darkest subject matter Of Montreal ever tackled. The deliriously catchy “Heimdalsgate Like A Promethean Curse” may be stuffed with fizzy keyboards and enormous hooks, but it’s worth keeping in mind that the song begins with Barnes singing “I’m in a crisis / I need help / Come on mood, shift shift back to good again” – a more transparently desperate cry for help in any setting other than the sugary synth-pop setting that it actually appears in. The hook – “Come on chemicals / Come ON chemicals!” – is not referring to blissful party drugs; it’s calling for an extra dose of antidepressants. That contrast – between the ecstasy of Barnes and company in full pop force and the sharp emotional wrench of the album’s lyrics – is part of what makes it so essential. Like so many truly great pop records — say, Born In The U.S.A. or 1999 or Songs In The Key Of Life – there’s a striking poetry waiting for whenever the top layers of sugar are eventually melted through. Any given dance session to the likes of “Faberge Falls For Shuggie” or “She’s A Rejector” can reveal the harsh emotional self-excavation going on at the core of those songs.
The same thing is going on in “Suffer For Fashion” and “A Sentence Of Sorts In Kongsvinger”, the only other songs on the album that reach the sheer dizzying pop heights of “Heimdalsgate”. Set atop a swooning, bubbly bed of disco strings and one of the most gorgeously-recorded basslines of the past 30 years, “A Sentence of Sorts” details a marriage falling apart and a paralyzing depression taking hold. The fact that the song itself sounds like some long-lost ABBA A-Side once again underlines the clever double-speak of Hissing Fauna, an album that seems to be split between trying to dance away its demons and dancing itself to death. It’s important to remember that the 2007 LP showed up in the wake of two consecutive successes for Of Montreal, 2004’s Satanic Panic in the Attic and 2005’s The Sunlandic Twins. Both were relentlessly catchy and as sonically focused as Of Montreal would ever be; what Hissing Fauna added to the bargain was the consistency of a narrative running through these songs. The lyrics became less opaque, so that the only thing hiding Barnes’ meaning was just how jubilant so much of the record’s dance-pop sound was. Once lines like “I spent the winter with my nose buried in a book / While trying to restructure my character because it had become vile to its creator” they stick with you, completely reorienting the radiant sounds around them. In its catchiest moments, Hissing Fauna operates like a slow-release capsule.
But not all of Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? is quite so elliptical. Album centerpiece “The Past Is A Grotesque Animal” is a psychodrama of epic proportions, and its haunted thoughts are announced by its steadily roiling minor key, its insistent post-punk thrum, the noises and creaking sonic chatter that fill its margins. References are made to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – that masterpiece of interpersonal dysfunction – and Kevin Barnes groans, howls, and bites into the song’s bitter lyrics with an abandon that unnerves in a way that even the cognitive dissonance of the album’s surrounding mental-breakdown-as-pop-opera context can’t quite match. The song is a tour de force, remaining compelling for every second of its near-12 minute runtime, thanks equally to Barnes’ fearless performance, his hypnotic production, and the band’s focused sense of atmosphere.
Interestingly, Barnes would run in the exact opposite direction from this kind of longform drama on 2008’s Skeletal Lamping, an album that, its uniting conceptual use of the Georgie Fruit character notwithstanding, is almost single-mindedly fractured. Where the sudden Beatles-circa-Abbey Road interludes of “A Sentence Of Sorts In Kongsvinger” and “Bunny Ain’t No Kind Of Rider” would eventually solidify back into the song’s initial thrust, most of Skeletal Lamping found Barnes and crew trying their level best to end up anywhere but where they started. A song like “An Eluardian Instance” raises goosebumps with its rapturous horn bursts and sweeping falsetto hooks, but it also instills harsh, sudden withdrawals when all of that pop splendor ebbs and those early choruses don’t come back around the way they should. It’s no coincidence that Jon Brion, in his “Reconstructionist” remix of “Eluardian Instance”, basically just loops the song’s opening third, essentially turning the song into what it likely would have been had it showed up on Hissing Fauna, where Barnes complicated his purest pop instincts by layering withering emotional honesty atop the material as a way of defamiliarizing it.
Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? thus stands as an album that found its creator putting it all together at once, operating within a hot-streak that never lets up for a moment across the LP’s near-hour runtime. Disco and funk would prove Kevin Barnes’ best medium – perhaps a surprise following a near-decade of less groovy stuff – especially when he maintained his Beatles-indebted ear for high-art melody and memorable lyrical ticks. “Bunny Ain’t No Kind Of Rider” is ostensibly one long hook, but its also drenched in acidic keyboards. “Labyrinthian Pomp” is a sultry workout, but it also eventually melts down to a woozy dream sequence of an outro. You can dance to most of Hissing Fauna. You can sing along to it too. And you can get lost in its literary depths, its challenging emotional honesty. The album is essentially one-of-a-kind, a cerebral masterpiece designed equally for introspection and motion.