Anyone familiar with Kevin Barnes’ long-running solo(ish) project of Montreal might be surprised by just how much of a big swing he takes at ‘pop’ on new album UR FUN. Over the past couple of decades, of Montreal have put together a remarkably consistent run of infectious psychedelic pop records that have never really been anything less than pretty weird. But from UR FUN’s opening moments, it’s clear that this time he’s decided to embrace his pop side – though it’s still a pretty weird take on pop.
Ever-present influences David Bowie and Prince have always been worn on Kevin Barnes’s sleeve, but the glittering throwback 80s production on UR FUN makes this sound as though it could easily sit in either artist’s output from that decade. Album opener’ Peace to All Freaks’ genuinely sounds like it could have been a B-Side to ‘Modern Love’ from Let’s Dance – all roomy snare drums and nimble synth lines as he sings a rallying cry to freaks of all persuasions not to lose heart in the face of “this era’s darkest heart.”
That very slight political edge is there across many of the tracks on this album, but you get the impression that it’s just informing Barnes’ perspective, rather than something he’s consciously trying to tackle in the songs. It’s never much more than skin deep – best shown on the paper-thin (but still pretty fun) ‘Don’t Let Me Die in America’. The song is pretty much just a list of US towns he doesn’t want to die in because he “doesn’t even want to haunt this place”, plus a couple of places he would be happy to die in outside of America – which will almost certainly be adapted from town to town when he tours this album internationally.
At their heart, most of Montreal songs are about sex, and that’s no different here. On ‘Polyaneurism’, he sings about feeling overwhelmed in a polyamorous relationship, where lyrics like, “Are we just the quarry in her sex safari?” threaten to tip the whole album into being a bit embarrassing.
But for an artist who’s always poured his love life into his songwriting, he’s clearly in a good place romantically, and he’s rarely written as overt a love song as ‘You’ve Had Me Everywhere’. “Listening to your heartbeat, realising it’s my heartbeat too, because if anything should happen to you, I would lose my mind and I’d never get it back,” is a disarmingly simple, open lyric to hear from an artist who has spent more than 20 years dressing up his songs in multiple layers of allusion, alter egos and impenetrable song titles. His most famous hit is called ‘Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse’, after all.
The album’s standout moment is the wonderful ‘Gypsy That Remains’, which – 80s-style production aside – could easily fit on one of his earlier albums. It clicks by with irrepressible energy, adorned with glittering synths and the sort of unstoppable vigour at the heart of his best songs. Just try not to fall in love with perfectly spiked lyrics like, “Oh, poor Daniel, torn to pieces.”
UR FUN sees Barnes in full pop mode, simplifying what you might expect from of Montreal in every respect. Even the cover art rejects the usual psych pop aesthetic to show Barnes and his other half in a convertible – an image that could easily adorn any number of 80s synth pop records. Unfortunately, that simplicity bleeds into the songs a little to make them slightly forgettable. UR FUN definitely fulfils the brief of its title – it’s a lot of fun, but unfortunately, it’s rarely much more than that.