Kevin Barnes hasn't been concerned with small things in a long time. As the frontman of psych-dance-pop outfit Of Montreal, he's been increasingly focused on pushing the limits of modern pop music. His past few records have been showing a more elongated aesthetic, one where the liquid rhythms and undeniable melodies of his past have been slowly molded into something more cinematic and dense. In the process, he's lost some of the naivete of those early releases but has gained a maturity and sense of experience that lends the newer stuff a welcome feeling of authority and weirdo authenticity. And to varying degrees of success, he's made this musical transition work to his advantage -- although the wear is beginning to show just a bit, which is in evidence on the band's latest record, "White Is Relic/Irrealis Mood."
From the barrage of sounds that comes careening out at you at the beginning of opening track, "Soft Music/Juno Portraits Of The Jovian Sky," to the closing industrial-pop and jazzy warbles of "If You Talk To Symbol/Hostility Voyeur," Barnes and his cadre of bizarro-pop associates make the strange seem commonplace. And even if they don't realize it, they remove some of its personality in the process. At just over 40 minutes and only covering 6 tracks, there's a lot to take in here in a confined space, but, surprisingly, most of its works as a form of psychedelic prog-pop experimentation. He's been angling towards this for a number of years, moving away from the bouncy pop of his earliest albums and finding relevancy in an expansive set of newly refined influences.
Of Montreal is no longer the band to go to if you're looking for something like "Disconnect the Dots" or "You are an Airplane" -- that narrow band of melodic pop music isn't where Barnes' fascination lies anymore. And to be fair, it's hard to fault him for wandering off from those nascent tones. Since releasing his official debut, "Cherry Peel," back in 1997, the band has been exploring and reshaping these specific sounds, finding ever-more supernatural ways to evoke those echoing pop oscillations. Thankfully, they do briefly touch on some of these aspects at times throughout "White Is Relic/Irrealis Mood," stopping the onslaught of ideas just long enough to hone in on what made them such expert peddlers of pop music to begin with.
In the enveloping cocoon of "Sophie Calle Private Game/Every Person Is A Pussy, Every Pussy Is A Star!," the band explores the collision of simpler pop themes with the more aggressive dancefloor and (gasp!) EDM anxieties that permeate the rest of these songs. And in that often confusing mass of noise, they look to the past for inspiration, repurposing their ancient pop innocence for our modern and confusing reality. "If You Talk To Symbol/Hostility Voyeur" also tries to meld the past and the present, to varying degrees of success -- the heart is there but the execution seems to be slightly off. These songs are unconditionally dense but filled with enough lightness to make you wish they'd simply focused on that aspect of their work.
"White Is Relic/Irrealis Mood" is easily the best Of Montreal record since 2013's "lousy with sylvanbriar," and maybe even 2007's "Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?." Their obsession with the gravitational banality of the dancefloor can make for some labored listening, but it doesn't outweigh the sheer magnitude of their ambition and the overall sense of ease with which Barnes and the band command these imposing sounds. It's absolutely impressive how much cohesion they get from these often disparate rhythms, bending and contorting them to fit the band's particular vision of pop music that can survive and even thrive within the confines of our modern world.