Kevin Barnes is a centaur. Or, at least, he plays one for a few minutes onstage each night with his polymorphic pop sextet Of Montreal. Dressing as a partly nude stallion is just one way Barnes and his hallucinatory Athens, Ga.–based troupe visually accompany the tour for their ninth album, Skeletal Lamping. The group has been transitioning through '60s psychedelic pop to libido-enriched electro-funk since 1997; its joint creativity splatters stages with carefree Mayan gods, frolicking ninjas, lascivious clergy, and fruit orgies.
Taken out of performance context, however, there may be more to the equine homage. As a Gemini, Barnes is rife with contradictions. And steed imagery is a most apt manifestation of his coltish tendencies as Of Montreal's sole songwriter. "Horses, they're almost like mythological creatures," he explains when asked about the show — as well as the ponies decorating posters and wall decals from Skeletal Lamping's merchandise-heavy release. "They have an otherworldly quality. You see an expression on their faces like they're sort of confused and out of place."
It's a look those who have directly addressed Barnes could find familiar. Offstage, the singer often comes across shy and ready to bolt. And conceptually, Barnes could be seen as a displaced creature. He spent several months in 2007 proclaiming his next work would be channeled through a black shemale named Georgie Fruit, now buried in passing on a few tracks. But through 15 abruptly segued songs (featuring multiple movements), he still bobs among personalities. "All of my thoughts come from a foreign host, now I feel just like a ghost," he sings on "Death Is Not a Parallel Move." That sentiment is followed by the lines, "The identity I composed out of terror has become oppressive now/I must defy this dark assignment, I'm over it now." Of course, this is preceded by a song called "Pleasure Puss" and followed by tales of bisexual experimentation.
To Barnes, however, the important horsing around is done lyrically rather than metaphorically. He claims he promotes nothing more than entertainment. "I'm not fascinated with [horses] because I feel alien, well, anymore than usual," he says. "I feel comfortable on this planet. ... I feel very comfortable in my skin, too, though it's taken a long time to get here."
Admittedly, Barnes has never openly requested to be shoed or curried. But it seems he appreciates a man-beast's physicality and duality. Sporting lyrics such as "We can do it soft-core if you want, but you should know I take it both ways," Skeletal Lamping shows a spirit amenable to being ridden. Erected from Prince's sexually blunt pop and David Bowie's dense, gnarled Berlin trilogy, the bass-heady sound wants to fuck you and fuck with you.
Songs such as "An Eluardian Instance" and "Gallery Piece" contrast rococo adoration and falsetto emissions. And onstage, Barnes' bruised ego and flushed id share space with life-size gallows, centaurs and satyrs competing for nymphs, and all the connotations read into such eye candy. The frontman isn't furthering a story so much as sequencing penetrating vignettes and associated art objects.
"You've heard of tantric sex," he says. "Well, I'm more into tantrum sex — it's sort of whiny and complaining at times, but it won't be boring and predictable. I've been building this sexual tension for years — programming albums on the computer and watching them get friskier — and I can see it going even longer."
Inserted with unhinged iconography and explicit affectations, Of Montreal is a self-fulfillment machine of lewd percussion and hermaphroditic tones. Looking at all of Barnes' projects — fueled by perverse curiosities and biographical underpinnings — it becomes obvious that, like a centaur, each one is about trying to piece together something part man and part myth.