No relationship is self-evident between the images or thoughts that pass through one’s mind. Not even those composing a single minute. Often the fantasies which populate the imagination seem incompatible, so hopelessly remote from one another that they couldn’t possibly be of the same piece. A character in a film that was somehow shown to encompass such a vast array of diffuse potentialities would be psychologically implausible to the majority of the audience. Yet, such is our situation, a situation which is easy enough to ignore, to forget—it is of no concern to forget that which does not happen in reality and, therefore, entails no consequence. That is the un-thought line of thinking on the matter, the assumed sense.
`Skeletal lamping’ is a phrase that first turned up in the song, “Faberge Falls for Shuggie,” at the fore of a trio of non sequiturs: “Skeletal lamping/The controller sphere/False priest.” While Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? was an album with more than its share of such indeterminate lyrics, it was also quite explicitly a process of working through traumatic events and psychological disturbance. That it was also a lot of fun to listen to seems less a case of Schadenfreude on the part of mass listeners than the result of Kevin Barnes’ further embrace of digital music-making processes and his developing vision of glam-inflected synth-pop psychedelia. Even the labyrinthine act of recollection, “The Past is a Grotesque Animal,” was kinetically stimulating. Moving bodies can distract tortured minds and temporarily fuse broken hearts. A guy can shake out of a paralytic state and forget about himself for a moment when he’s in motion.
A different approach appeared in “Faberge” and “Labyrinthian Pomp.” The latter marked the first appearance of Georgie Fruit, Barnes’ black, transvestite alter ego, and both songs were departures sonically, overtly influenced by funk and soul, peppered with brash layers of falsetto vocals. Their content was not as unambiguously self-referential. Skeletal Lamping takes these songs as its departure point, bringing the funk in weird ways and weaving through diverse incarnations of Kevin Barnes. Lamping is a hunting method which utilizes powerful floodlights in order to flush out nocturnal game. Lamping one’s psyche would presumably reveal the skeletons stuffed away in the closets of the imagination, fantasy images of ourselves unrealized in day-to-day life. But the title can be read in another way: as emphasizing the lamping of the skeleton and not only the skull, of the body as well as the mind.
The imagined selves of Skeletal Lamping are corporeal phantoms, imagined bodies that diverge in race and gender, marked by myriad virtual experiences, hooked together by the twin threads of sexual innocence and obsession. Kevin Barnes’ acceptance and exploration of alterity is commendable. His projections of himself turn tricks on the hood of a car, take it both ways, and take her standing up ass against the sink; one reveals the contents of a rival’s personal journal to expose the siren-song of his sex appeal, while another recites a fascinating and apparently contradictory litany of what he (she?) desires to do to her (his?) lover, some of it sexual, some of it typical, some of it sentimental. Taken together—the song is “Gallery Piece”—the statements are at once overwhelming and uncomfortably close to reflecting a fundamental truth about love of and fascination with another human being. With its slinky bass line and emphasis on variation within repetition it is also one of the most coherent and compulsive pieces of music on Skeletal Lamping.
“Nonpareil of Favor” provides the general outline of the composition strategy at work throughout the album: cramming different, seemingly incongruous sections under the umbrella of a single song. It begins sounding a lot like something that could have been on Hissing Fauna, both musically and lyrically, before slipping into a digression and then exploding into a wall of noise and an epic coda. The shifts are meant to be jarring and draw attention to the process of construction. Montage of musical ideas, some of them full and others fragmentary, is used in a conspicuous manner that makes it a part of a song’s overall effect. The method provides a parallel to Barnes’ fragmenting of himself into various narrators and forces the listener to adapt to its unexpected transformations while inviting her to make connections—which are not given—between segments of a song.
Skeletal Lamping is, then, in many ways a challenging work. But its intellectual and sexual aspects are extremely playful and surrounded by humor, jubilance, and just enough absurdity. “St. Exquisite’s Confessions” and “Plastis Wafers” are representative on this count. The former is something of a slow-mo soul jam, introduced with the provocative, “I’m so sick of sucking the dick of this cruel, cruel city,” and including loaded references to a Shuggie Otis song (“There’s still some gentle people fucking to `Strawberry Letter 23′“) and a dreamlike post-Prague Spring, Czechoslovak film (“We talked about Valerie and Her Week of Wonders”). Valerie is erotic and surreal, saturated with color and fascinating in the layers of meaning at play in its seeming incoherence—in many ways a kindred work to Skeletal Lamping, another “harlequinade of feeling and imagination” that privileges the interplay of apparently opposed forces (personas) rather than the triumph of one over the other.
It may be that by confusing our dreams with our realities, our actions with those witnessed on screen or in novels—by, in essence, exploring our incomposable selves, that we can become more productively whole. Kevin Barnes has succeeded in doing something like this, joyfully, extravagantly. On Skeletal Lamping (and in the increasingly elaborate and sexualized Of Montreal live performances) he becomes a confluence of diverse sexualities, emotions, perspectives, ideas, and fantastic, irresistible sounds. Capable at once of the melancholic wonder of “An Eluardian Instance” and the paranoid libido-led “Id Engager,” the salacious oddball antics of “Women’s Studies Victims” and heartfelt, gender-bending fantasies of “Plastis Wafers”—through the relationship between these and other personas—he composes an appealing, alternative masculinity.
Video: “Id Engager”