Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?
ormally I wouldn’t bring up an indie-rock band selling one of its songs for a TV commercial, because damn near everybody does it nowadays anyway. What was once heresy is now just savvy marketing—hell, maybe even necessary marketing, considering how people don’t watch music videos or go to local record shops anymore.
However, it was a different story when Of Montreal’s “Wraith Pinned to the Mist (And Other Games)” appeared in bastardized form in an Outback commercial last year. While the vast majority of indie jams-turned-jingles are faithfully reproduced in ads as they were first recorded, the lyrics penned here by Kevin Barnes (Of Montreal’s de facto sole principal) were rejiggered specifically to suit the steakhouse, a scenario which not only raised a few interesting questions, but also suggested some things about the band itself that went beyond the usual “selling out” tropes.
First and foremost, what the fuck? What ostensibly possessed some young ad man to hear “Wraith…” and think “y’know, this would make a great Outback commercial, if we completely changed the words to make them fit an Outback commercial.” I mean, what song couldn’t you take apart and rewrite to sell bloomin’ onions and overpriced steak? The words they did substitute aren’t particularly clever, and I’m not even going to get into the horrifying existential emptiness suggested by a lyric like “Let’s go Outback tonight / Life will still be here tomorrow.”
It actually squares, in a way, with Barnes’ entire divergent mission (i.e. joining danceably accessible indie-pop to wildly inscrutable lyrics). The garishly-titled Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? (an appellation which isn’t so much awful as it is hilarious) continues this collision of verbal obstinance and pure pop pleasure. In a narrower sense, it also represents the third exemplary album in a row Barnes has made since abruptly (and brilliantly) deciding to slough off the paisley Elephant 6-isms of his past and embrace liquid basslines and fleet, disco-tinged funkiness.
Also in keeping with the tradition of its two predecessors, Hissing Fauna is severely front-loaded, not necessarily because the closing songs are duds, but more because the album’s first half is nearly flawless. “Suffer for Fashion” is a quintessential opener, outfitted with chugging guitars and set to a breathless breakneck pace. “Cato as Pun” improbably bests it, boasting a fiercely taut riff and a jubilant outro that practically dares you to resist pogoing, not to mention lyrics that actually seem to convey something resembling an honest human emotion, Barnes sniping “don’t say that I have changed / ‘cause man of course I have.” Reassuringly, the next song is about drugs (and happens to double as the catchiest on the whole record), carrying a simple brain-scrambled refrain of “c’mon chemicals.” Soon following is a track about spurning both organized churches and indie-rock clubs as suitable places of worship, capped off with Barnes making the authoritative statement that “physics makes us all it’s bitches”—or is it “physics makes us solids, bitches”? Either way, all is right with the world again.
Unfortunately, there’s an elephant looming in the room in the form of “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal,” a numbing Krautrock-inspired track that spans nearly twelve minutes in length and inevitably grinds the album’s dizzying pace down to a halt (by the by, who ever thought Of Montreal would release one of these minimalist epics before Radiohead did?). The initial temptation is to treat it like a turd in the punch bowl, but Barnes’ motortik experiment isn’t an especially horrendous effort, just an unnecessarily lengthy and uneventful one. Wilco doing droning odes to Neu! makes sense because Jeff Tweedy sometimes has trouble writing decent hooks (especially of late). Barnes has no such difficulty, and so twelve minutes of one stultifying groove just seems like a waste when at least three or four giddy pop nuggets could’ve easily gone in its place.
Barnes does struggle a bit to right the ship after that detour, but while the album’s latter half isn’t quite up to par with its opening, there are still plenty of good reasons to fight nodding off during “Grotesque Animal.” Both “Faberge Falls for Shuggie” and “Labyrinthian Pomp” allow Barnes to flash his deadly falsetto as well as indulge his disco-diva dreams, but even those hysterically flamboyant moves (if you remember when Alfred Soto accused the suddenly-butch Killers of suffering from “gay panic,” this is the opposite of that) aren’t half as kookily compelling as “Bunny Ain’t No Kind of Rider.” Bizarrely enough, it’s a song of romantic fidelity, albeit one in which said monogamy is emphasized at one point with the couplet “you must be aware I’m not alone / I’ve got a tigress back at home,” and also gets repeatedly driven home with the charming refrain “Eva, I’m sorry but you will never have me / To me you’re just some faggy girl and I need a lover with soul power.” Let’s see somebody try and use that to sell porterhouse.