Sex has been used to sell records since Elvis Presley and his hips awoke millions of girls’ libidos in the 1950s. But taboo sex has been in commission only since David Bowie realized that his early-’70s output was lacking an aspect that could move units. A little mascara, a cod piece and sexually ambiguous clothes and lyrics, and wham bam thank you ma’am, you’ve got yourself a bonafied controversy.
On Of Montreal’s fine ninth album, Skeletal Lamping, frontman Kevin Barnes positions himself in the Bowie mold, singing about gender-ambigious sex (“We can do it softcore if you want, but you should know I go both ways). After the depression that produced last year’s Hissing Fauna Are You The Destroyer?, Skeletal Lamping is a light-hearted romp through Barnes’ sexual identity and psychoses.
Sex has always figured prominently in Of Montreal’s lyric sheets, but never has Barnes created a project that was so implicitly and explicitly about getting busy. But where Bowie knew sexual ambiguity would move records, Barnes motives seem more genuine: Of Montreal, after all, are singed to Polyvinyl and won’t ever see a sixth zero on their sales total. Maybe Barnes really thinks of himself as a black she-male like he says he does on “Wicked Wisdom,” or he really wants to “ejaculate until it’s no longer fun” like he says on “Plastis Wafer.”
But the pillow talk is probably (it’s not entirely clear if it’s all a joke) a purposeful distraction, because sex is the only thing that holds the schizophrenic genre hopping and inter-song mood and tone shifts of Skeletal Lamping together. Shards of disco, glam, psychedelia, and atmospheric pop appear and disappear with great frequency. Album highlight “For Our Elegant Caste” explodes and implodes over its three minutes, “Id Engager” imagines what the Bee Gees would be like if they were on Ketamine, and “Gallery Piece” (a slightly more serious version of Flight of the Conchords’ “If You’re Into It,” during which Barnes lists a laundry list of things he’d like to do to his lover) see-saws between an amorphous interlude and its hard-charging verse. Skeletal Lamping is every-bit as post-modern musically as Girl Talk’s Feed the Animals is.
“Epic” is the only way to describe the balance of Skeletal Lamping— Barnes isn’t afraid to throw everything on tape. It’s not that Of Montreal don’t make some missteps (“St. Exquisite’s Confessions,” “Death Is Not a Parallel Move,” and “Beware Our Nubile Miscreants” are proof), but the willingness to stretch as far as Of Montreal have on Skeletal Lamping cements their position at the forefront of the indie-rock vanguard.