There’s been fewer more convincing examples of how to royally deflate a career than of Montreal. Since 2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? which had a very real shot of nestling itself among the list of 2000s indie staples, Kevin Barnes’ seemingly systematic demolition of his own legacy has been rather impressive, operating with a frankly stupid level of prolificness and variety that, shy of much pertinent quality control, has built a pretty clearl barrier between of Montreal and the larger success they once could’ve had. It’s not even like all of their material has been bad either, but vomiting out releases at such a clip doesn’t make for material that feels properly honed; for as much of an improvement as 2018’s White Is Relic/Irrealis Mood was, the overlong electronic compositions and difficulty to produce anything all that thematically engaging still let it down quite a bit. And so, here’s UR FUN, another shift in direction that looks away from extended electronic mixes for inspiration, and reportedly draws on artists like Cyndi Lauper and Janet Jackson instead. By now, it’s hard to be all that surprised by of Montreal’s creative decisions, but there’s at least more of an impetus to care about this one, if only because it could see their creative freewheeling reined in somewhat for an album that actually connects for the first time in a while.
That’s not really hard to glean given the intensity of the pop focus this time around, but what’s surprising is just how much UR FUN works. The tightness and zeroed-in construction feels placed above of Montreal’s usual winding indie experimentalism, and it makes for a relative succinct listen that knows exactly what it wants to do and achieves it. That’s something that arguably can’t have been said about this band for a long time, and when balanced out even more by the built-in likability of this sort of vintage-leaning indie-pop, UR FUN is a pivot that it’s incredibly easy to get behind.
And among it all, it’s rather funny that a lot of that this is the album from of Montreal that displays the most comfort with where it is in some time. Even as a narrator, Barnes shows a contentment with the relationship he’s in, coated in the glitzy, classic romanticism evidenced by the cover art and by his valiant attempts to bend his hipster-indie lyrical style to fit the love song template on a track like You’ve Had Me Everywhere. It’s actually rather sweet to see the old-fashioned romantic sentiments of an artist like this come through, to the point where his dismissal of more liberated, contemporary sexual freedoms on a track like Polyaneurism is less judgmental and more just bemused (albeit a lot less easy to slide when the condescending undertones of Get God’s Attention By Being An Atheist and especially Deliberate Self-Harm Ha Ha slide through).
With that, it’s easy to see how of Montreal are leaning into the classic pop touchstones that form the basis of UR FUN, particularly with how enjoyable on a raw musical level it is. The glistening synth touches and quick-stepping programmed percussion of opener Peace To All Freaks make for a good start rather immediately, but there’s enough packed into this sound in terms of constructive range and propulsive enjoyability that gives of Montreal some rather fertile ground to build on. Wisely, it’s something they seem rather committed to sticking to as well; there’s the odd deviation like the further blending of their former psychedelic pop side on the swooning Carmillas Of Love or something that’s rooted in a more traditional indie-rock sound like Get God’s Attention By Being An Atheist and 20th Century Schizofriendic Revengoid-Man (both of which can occasionally feel as though the deviate from album’s established settings a bit too much), but tapping into the new wave and classic power-pop mould feels the most fruitful overall. It’s partly because Barnes as a vocalist has a style that’s not too far from ‘80s synthpop performers in its more stoic timbre, and when placed against the dancing layers of light and needle-sharp grooves that make up tracks like Polyaneurism and Gypsy That Remains, there’s a pop potency that highlights just how much of Montreal have been neglecting that side of themselves. There are definitely instances of spottier production and mixing, particularly in the back half with the flat vocal production on Deliberate Self-Harm Ha Ha, but when it’s good, of Montreal land upon their strongest method of execution in a number of albums’ time.
Granted, expecting of Montreal to settle here is a foolish notion indeed, but for the brief moment that UR FUN is here, it does feel like a band playing to a more cogent and open set of strengths. It’s hard to argue with nakedly obvious nostalgia being at play, but at the same time it’s utilised remarkably well, and at its best, the level of accuracy and tightness really is impressive. If this came from a band who’d ensure it wouldn’t get swamped within a vast discography with next to no consistency, this could be something really great; as it stands here though, it’s a shot of energy that of Montreal probably won’t capitalise on all that much, but it’s great to have here all the same.
For fans of: Animal Collective, Eurythmics, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘UR FUN’ by of Montreal is released on 17th January on Polyvinyl Records.