White Relic/Irrealis Mood
Polyvinyl Records, 2018
Review by Kent Manthie
There’s something about the 2018 release by of Montreal, White Relic/Irrealis Mood that is just irresistible – somehow, with so much happening in my on world at the time, I just completely missed it but when I did finally catch up with it I kicked myself for not having caught it in time to write a review that was more of a “preview”, i.e., one that was anticipating its release rather than reflecting on it a year and a half after the fact. But shit happens, right?
So, if you’ve been following of Montreal, you’ve seen and heard all the various mood swings, the ups and downs of main man/songwriter/singer/multi-instrumentalist, Kevin Barnes and his personae, guises, characters, etc., e.g., Georgie Fruit. You also would’ve been aware of Barnes’s accounts of his marriage to Nina, sometime band member, which, finally, after some rocky years, came to an end around 2014 or so, after a painful last few years of it. Kevin used the agony of the failure of his marriage as a reason for catharses that he went through and took us, the listeners, along for the ride. This was a big part of the releases which came out around this time period: Paralytic Stalks, Lousy With Sylvanbriar (which was actually a pretty good album, featuring the typical hyper-pop-culture sensibilities) and Aureate Gloom.
But by the time Barnes was ready to get in gear for writing and recording White Relic, he said that he had finally “forgiven himself” for the failure of his marriage; plus he was now ensconced in a new relationship and this was reason for going in the direction he took on this album. Much more dance-oriented than the previous few of Montreal releases, White Relic/Irrealis Mood goes for a club-oriented, groovy dance atmospheric set piece. Each song has two titles, or rather has two “parts” to it, though where one ends and the other begins is not obvious but, one can figure it out, mainly by listening to the lyrics and noting how far into the cut one is. For instance, the album opens up with “Soft Music/Juno Portraits of the Jovian Sky”. The latter half is pretty obvious, since it shows up in the last 2-2.5 minutes. The next tune, “Paranoiac Intervals/Body Dysmorphia” is another double cut that features more of Barnes’s excellent use of intellectual hipster vocabulary, obscure references and theatrical verve that work so well with the mesmerizing, dance groove which you just can’t stop. As soon as you think a certain song is coming to a part where it would be apt to pause it and go make yourself a sandwich, take a powder or listen to the voicemail that you have since you’ve put your phone on “silent mode”, suddenly it has you in its grip; you’re in a trance and may or may not even realize it yet!
Coming off, at the point at which he’s writing White Relic, over a year at that point – of Drumpf and his insane circus of venal villains who are making the worst sort of mockery of the American political system, this disturbing embarrassment, has had an impact (how couldn’t it, unless one’s been living under a rock or in a vacuum?) on Barnes’s songwriting in that he, while stunned into a kind of mystical cynicism, numb from being hit over the head with a spoiled child who stumbled into the presidency and if he doesn’t get his way he’ll write a nasty tweet about you on Twitter – this, back in 2016-17 was a new phenomenon that, once ensconced in power has continued unabated until now it’s come to be viewed as “normal”, or maybe “typical” would be a better way of putting it, since there’s nothing normal about Drumpf. Anyhow, the brutal, savage brash asshole, his idea of being a “leader” having more to do with threats and intimidation as well as the reptiles he picked for his cabinet; goons, who, when told to “jump” say “how high”? have made their way into Barnes’s songwriting. He cites “months of ‘Drumpf’-related ‘simulated-reality paranoia ‘ as an influence on the album as a whole but it seems best expressed by “Plateau-Phase/No Careerism No Corruption”: reality, being imagined as fragile and fluid and “If we put our ear to the ceiling/We Can hear the multiverse seeding/We can hear the simulation wheezing”. But don’t let this sort of mind-bending doodle color your impression of White Relic as a whole. It isn’t a political polemic, filled with indignation about the current nightmare in which we live. To put out that message as its theme would be to seriously do injustice to the wonderful, mind-bending, mesmerizing, at times, music as well as Barnes’s crafty, verbally astute lyrics which, put together add up to a great antidote for both the misery of the far-right slowly gaining pockets of power, not just here in the US, but abroad, as well, not to mention the pandemic of SARS-CoV-2 (aka COVID-19, which the media uses, so as not to “scare” the public by using the term “SARS”; what logic, huh? To go into detail about it would just be depressing and that is neither the purpose of White Relic nor my review of it. In other words, “Party People of the World Unite!!!” So, in essence, i.e., to put it into a simple sentence: White Relic/Irrealis Mood is, well, certainly one of the best releases of the decade but it also marks the point at which Kevin Barnes has finally, after the catharses of the last few oM releases, has come out on the winning side of the trauma he’s been through following the failure of his marriage.
If you want to ride out this irrationality and try to stay sane in the process, White Relic/Irrealis Mood will keep you from going bats. –KM.
NEXT UP: NEW of MONTREAL REVIEW (UR FUN).