Getting too attached to one of Montreal’s albums is generally a bad idea. During their 19 years on the scene, the band – or rather, sole consistent member and frontman Kevin Barnes – has released a total of 14 studio albums, constantly changing their style throughout. Starting with simple acoustic guitar ditties, Barnes then moved towards whimsical songs that acted as character sketches before switching again towards a more psychedelic-sounding pop rock. More electronic elements were added, culminating in the excellent Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?, wherein Barnes introduced us to his sexually charged alter-ego “Georgie Fruit,” whose Prince-esque funk dominated a few albums. Barnes then moved in a much more experimental direction, and most recently has been making retro-rock (see 2013’s Lousy With Sylvianbriar and last year’s Aureate Gloom).
Essentially, when a new of Montreal album is announced (which happens pretty much annually), it’s anyone’s guess as to what it will sound like.
This may explain the general lack of surprise from listeners when of Montreal released the first single off Innocence Reaches, titled “It’s Different For Girls.” It’s an unabashedly synthpop song, and the closest the band had previously come to making a similar track was way back in 2005 with The Sunlandic Twins. Its funky bassline makes it seem as if Barnes will reemerge as Georgie Fruit any moment, but he remains even-keeled throughout as he sings about all the things he admires about the ladies (and what annoys him about dudes). It falters at the chorus when the melody becomes heavily distorted and Barnes sings “though some women are demons/all of them are gods,” but it wouldn’t be a bad lead in to a new EDM-tinted direction for the band.
As it turns out, categorizing Innocence Reaches as an electronic album would be misleading, and few other tracks on the album resemble “It’s Different For Girls.” The opener “Let’s Relate” is similar enough, with reverberating synthesizers and drum machines pounding throughout. Yet its intensity and the robotic tone of Barnes’s voice will likely thrill some while others may find it, in Barnes’s own words, “the most truly repellent techno music ever made.” “Trashed Exes” edges into electronica with a trap-like beat and sparse instrumentation, but the result is a flop. It is only “A Sport and a Pastime” that emerges as the best of the electronic bunch, with a subtle buildup reminiscent of LCD Soundsystem and a genuinely catchy chorus.
The remainder of the album is surprisingly rooted in of Montreal’s previous albums, most noticeably on its rock tracks. After the back-to-back synthesizer blast of “Let’s Relate” and “It’s Different For Girls,” the album does a 180 and goes into the supremely power pop “Gratuitous Abysses.” Heavily driven by electric guitar riffs, Barnes vaguely sounds like Hives frontman Pelle Almqvist as he powers through his most straightforward rock song since 2002’s “Jennifer Louise.” The throwback stylings of “Les Chants De Maldoror” and the titular guitar scales of “Chaos Arpeggiating” bring last year’s Aureate Gloom to mind, reviving the best of its retro guitar-centric theme. And while the lack of guitar and disco-like chorus of “My Fair Lady” place it outside the realm of rock, its idiosyncratic bassline evokes several past of Montreal tracks – think of a darker “Wraith Pinned to the Mist.”
Above all else, the lyrics on Innocence Reaches play the largest role in reminding you that you are indeed listening to of Montreal. Just like the Smiths, Barnes excels in masking doom and gloom behind much cheerier instrumentation. Almost all of the tracks on Innocence Reaches sound relatively upbeat, meaning you might miss lines like “dismantling our love, killing it to please other people” and “this loneliness is so distracting I’m barely missing you at all.” Barnes is a recent divorcee and spent much of Aureate Gloom reflecting on life without his wife Nina, who has been a subject of Barnes’s songs (both positive and negative) for over a decade. This comes to a fore on “Def Pacts,” where Barnes sing-talks with the most vitriol he has since “The Past is a Grotesque Animal.” However, after spouting lines like “you can’t really martyr yourself when no one gives a fuck” and “I think you’re just looking for a reason to go off the rails, start another bender,” the tone of the song suddenly changes and Barnes sings “won’t you be good to me? Won’t you be fair?” in a soft, sincere manner. Of Montreal’s lyrics have always been one of their strongest attributes, and Innocence Reaches is no exception.
While it’s easy to point out that Innocence Reaches is all over the place and lacks a single theme, it’s only marginally more eclectic than its predecessors and doesn’t seem that out of place in the context of the band’s discography. Less forgivable are the album’s more lackluster tracks, like the aforementioned “Trashed Exes,” the dreary “Ambassador Bridge,” or the monotonous “Nursing Slopes.” Yet these are more casualties of experimentation than indicative of the album, as Innocence Reaches has several great tracks to make up for any shortcomings. It may not raise the bar set by their most recent breakthrough Lousy With Sylvianbriar or approach the outstanding Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?, but as mentioned before, it’s generally a bad idea to hope you’ll get a reprise of a previous of Montreal album. Instead, Innocence Reaches shows that Barnes is still able to work old tricks into new ideas fourteen albums into his career.