For over a decade now, of Montreal songwriter/frontman (and, erm, sole member a lot of the time), Kevin Barnes has been chasing his own tail. His magnum opus, the bona fide 21st century indie music touchstone, 2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? has proven to be his definitive, as yet insurmountable, statement. That chase to approach it, match it, better it even, has led Barnes down some, how can I put this tactfully? ... interesting paths, down which not everyone (least amongst them: stuffy rock critics) has been willing to follow him.

Criminally underrated follow-up, Skeletal Lamping, saw him fully embody his Afro-American, transvestite alter-ego, Georgie Fruit, shaking up the stuffy, heteronormative image of contemporary indie rock whilst structuring his album with the ADHD, CTRL-C, CTRL-V approach of mash-up artists like Girl Talk. False Priest sounded incredible, thanks to Jon Brion’s production work, but lacked the writerly craft of Hissing Fauna and the (somehow redeeming) off-the-wall, debauched lunacy of Lamping. The probably justifiably underrated Paralytic Stalks awkwardly stitched the band’s trademark, convoluted psych-funk-pop to the harsh modern classical dissonance and atonality of Ives and Penderecki, to alienating, emotionally obfuscating effect.

At that point, even Barnes realised he’d lost virtually everyone but the most dedicated, Sunlandic Twins tattoo-sporting fans. Lousy with Sylvianbriar and Aureate Gloom, with their warm, inviting live band sound and infatuations with late 60s psych- and garage rock and 70s art punk respectively, seemed to be acts of atonement, eager to be liked, but veering a little uncomfortably close to being safe and, whisper it, boring, as a result. 2016’s Innocence Reaches was heralded as an embrace of EDM, with Barnes citing Jack Ü as an influence alongside the usual touchstones of The Beach Boys and The Beatles. Just to clarify, that’s not some obscure, compulsive handjob-giving, East German, underground acid house DJ only Barnes had heard of, but rather, that Jack Ü, the Diplo/Skrillex collaborative project. In its final execution, Innocence Reaches felt more like two wildly different EPs smashed together rather than a cohesive LP; Barnes’ commitment to euphoric beat-driven numbers being somewhat half-hearted. The album does, however, contain the seed for what would become White is Relic/Irrealis Mood in the deep cut, ‘ambassador bridge,’ with its moody groove and patient structure.

That's the first impression long term fans will probably get upon listening to White is Relic: Barnes is, for the most part, content to let grooves run their course, no longer feeling the need to impress us with whiplash-inducing melodic change-ups. Opener, ‘Soft Music/Juno Portraits Of The Jovian Sky,’ counts as a fairly inauspicious opener for an of Montreal LP. A plodding beat, an understatedly funky bassline and a super kitsch leading synth line carry the song along, whilst the perpetually thesaurus-toting Barnes stiltedly speak-sings his usual, verbose semi-nonsense: “Soft music change the oxygen from/besieged Bushwick Street/Reflexively retching Anglo influx though there will be/No gentrificating of/Graffiti worship of summer love.” Uhm, what? Of course, this is the man who opened up his chemically imbalanced mind and ripped out his ruined heart for all to see on ‘The Past Is A Grotesque Animal’, so even when you’re having to stop to Google half of his references, he can still cut to the bone when he wants to: “It's hard to stop the triggering of one's self-destructive urges,” he drones at the chorus’ end.

‘Writing the Circles/Orgone Tropics’ rides a similarly lumbering beat, but the soundscape Barnes conjures up evokes images of flying over a low-budget, Blade Runner-esque skyline, flames blossoming against the dystopian darkness in time to the static snare smashes. It’s the first track that makes you realise how much the album as a whole really sounds the way that album cover looks. It sounds like the poorly rendered graphics of retro-futurist video games, it sounds like crappy fonts and awkward graphic design. Basically, it sounds like it really shouldn’t work. But, somehow, for the most part, it does. The vocal effects that mask Barnes’ voice on ‘Writing the Circles’, pitching it higher during the verses and lower on the chorus is studio gimmickry at its most flagrant. And yet, it’s strangely compelling. Combine that with Barnes’ repeated use of the line “not a lot” as the saddest punchline ever written to statements like “Maybe I love you, like I love myself...” or “Maybe I help you, like your education…” and you won’t know whether to laugh or cry. If you were in any doubt though, Barnes has a thought for you to mull over, whilst you prep the razor and fill up the tub: “This acute loneliness that you feel/Has nothing to do with other people.”

It’s not all doom and gloom though. Barnes has always been a master of balancing his dark confessions with biting humour, and on White is Relic, he’s the most quotable he’s been in years. “You should be fucking with no one else,” goes the chorus to lead single, ‘Paranoic Intervals/Body Dysmorphia,’ and while the song is playing, you buy it. It’s the most fun this writer has had with an of Montreal song since Skeletal Lamping. Barnes himself sounds revitalised. “I had to draw a line in my life,” Barnes vamps to the imaginary camera, clearly pleased with his sense of clinically-prioritising empowerment. “There’s those I have time for/There’s those I don’t.” He’s so confident he gets away with a line as fundamentally ludicrous as, “a Prussian, Christian bot, is something I am not.” Around him, the instrumental is intoxicating: drums pound, synths pinball around, and the low-end hits the way it should have on the EDM experiments of Innocence Reaches. The pivot into the ‘Body Dysmorphia’ section of the track is, however, more interesting sonically than it is lyrically, and arguably crosses the line into overwrought territory.

However, that self-perception of ugliness is important thematically in how it ties in to the effect of falling in love/lust on ‘Sophie Calle Private Game/Every Person Is a Pussy, Every Pussy Is a Star!’: “I'm feeling less ugly now, like you beautify me.” Falling in love was cited as being one of the key inspirations during the composition of White is Relic, and ‘Sophie Calle’ is Barnes baring it all about his first courtship following the dissolution of his marriage to the famous Nina, who had essentially been the subject of every Of Montreal album since 2006. Over horn-laden funk set to a caveman glam stomp, Barnes tries to justify himself for coming on strong: “Take this too far so we can see if it is far enough/I should move slower but the last year has been kind of rough.” It’s always been commendable how much Barnes is willing to share of himself, but it can enter problematic territory. A line like, “It's not an act of aggression, it's getting to know you,” comes across as tone-deaf in the post-#metoo era. Elsewhere on the song, the sexual frankness of the Georgie Fruit era makes a (welcome?) return, hilariously following up a line about reading Sappho (Google it) with: “you whispered ‘don’t be vulgar’ while I was making you cum.”

Earlier track and second single, ‘Plateau Phase/No Careerism No Corruption,’ had already set this tone with its out-of-nowhere opening line of “fucked in your driveway, in your driveway.” But the song is actually all about the second major inspiration for the album: Barnes’ descent into simulated reality paranoia. According to the “woke” essay/press release which accompanied the album release announcement, this was precipitated by the election and inauguration of President Trump. Whilst the advent of Trumpism has left most of us merely beleaguered and depressed, finding solace in the satirical commentary of late night chat show TV, it apparently inspired Barnes to write and record a synth- and saxophone-laden, retro-futurist, confessional, electro-funk odyssey that feels like the product of having binge-watched Rick and Morty whilst on particularly strong downers. As you do. A quasi-dubstep bassdrop heralds a chorus whose eyes positively dart with paranoia: “If we put our ear to the ceiling/We can hear the government breathing... If we put our ear to the ceiling/We can hear the multiverse ceding/We can hear the simulation wheezing,” he sings, apparently trying to make paranoia sound sexy with all that heavy-handed sighing and croaking he insists on placing at the end of each line. More than almost anywhere else, this chorus marks the point of convergence of the sublime and ridiculous, which are the two modes in constant conflict throughout White is Relic/Irrealis Mood.

Album closer, ‘If You Talk to Symbol/Hostility Voyeur’ is a perfect microcosm for the album as a whole. Over the course of its eight and a half minute runtime, it veers wildly from 80s sci-fi TV theme, to new wave synth pop, to a full-blown EDM meets witch-house rave-up, to noided robotic rap, to twitchy funk, before it all implodes into an extended ambient, avant-jazz coda, replete with Zac Colwell’s mournful sax playing. Parts of the track are incredible, others are groan-inducingly ridiculous (oh lord, that “rap” section). It’s a song, more of a suite really, seemingly at war with itself. The clue to understanding it and the album it’s on, hell, even Barnes himself, as a person and as an artist, is all in the song’s chorus:

When things are too nice for too long / I lose myself, I lose what's good / Want to lash out, want to blow things up again / I want to blow them up now / I want to blow them up again

Though it refers to the love affair that makes up the majority of the album’s narrative, it also reflects Barnes’ impulses as a songwriter and performer. He is constantly blowing up what’s good about his work, adding extraneous parts, going on wild tangents, obfuscating emotional truth with impenetrable verbosity, veering from good taste to bad in the blink of an eye, or reinventing his band’s sound wholesale. While this impulse doesn’t always translate to an enjoyable experience for the listener, and can be especially trying for longtime fans, who can become overly attached to what they would consider to be Of Montreal’s definitive sound, there’s no denying that Barnes takes your ears to places they’ve likely never been before. There won’t be another album that comes out this year that sounds like White is Relic/Irrealis Mood.