Lady on the Cusp by of montreal album review by Garreth O'Malley for Northern Transmissions


Lady on the Cusp

of montreal

Part of the fun of writing about of Montreal records is that you can never be too sure which version of the project you’re going to get. The Vermont-via-Georgia act, helmed by Kevin Barnes, continues to be chameleonic and prolific in its approach to creation; it would be appropriate to say that Barnes doesn’t create music because they have to, they do so because they want to. Sure, we’re about a decade removed from their imperial phase—and the evolution from the freewheeling Satanic Panic in the Attic to the brutal and excoriating Paralytic Stalks remains fascinating—but Barnes has consistently shown up since, their style ever-changing.

In the last five years alone, we’ve experienced them at their most accessible (UR FUN), their most scattershot (the underrated digital-only follow-up I Feel Safe With You, Trash) and their most imposing (2022’s Freewave Lucifer F^ck F<ck F>ck). It’s their ability to pinball between musical extremes that makes of Montreal one of the most compelling acts in alternative music, even now as it approaches its 30-year anniversary. Barnes, who came out as genderfluid and non-binary in 2020 after experimenting with a musical alter ego a decade prior, is the ‘lady on the cusp of all extremes’. No half measures: the listener must feel everything along with them.

So it goes: Lady on the Cusp is a hell of a ride, with the album somehow clocking in at a hair under 35 minutes. You won’t spot that on first listen; it’s packed with ideas and dazzling sonic left-turns that nod to the progressive nature of Barnes’s music and current lyrical fixations. Contrary to its title, opener ‘Music Hurts the Head’ is a welcoming reintroduction to the long-running project, full of low-end heft and typically Barnesian lyrical hooks (“I’m not afraid of ruining you / I’m happy that you want me to”), setting out the record’s stall with a song that’s simultaneously laser-focused and giddily eclectic.

Verse-chorus-verse is fairly uncommon for of Montreal these days, more reminiscent of the early days than anything else, but the diversity of the record even has something for the old-school fans, doing 1997 like it’s 2024 with the acoustic-led ‘Rude Girl on Rotation’ and ‘I Can Read Smoke’, two songs that stick out for their relative simplicity in contrast to the likes of the multi-movement ‘Soporific Cell’ (FYI, fans of the aforementioned imperial phase, this is the song for you, right down to the extended coda) and the propulsive sad-banger-with- detours ‘PI$$ Pi$$’. (Side note: only Barnes would call a song about kicking back against the long-exposure haunting of childhood trauma that.)

There’s no room for dead space on a record this compact, and herein lies the genius of the project’s later-period work: a lot of this album will get stuck in your head without meaning to.‘2 Depressed 2 Fuck’ slouches with all of the apathy its title implies—and yes, this is straightforwardly a song about being too sad to get it up—and the lyrical zingers come hard and fast, in a manner of speaking: “Urinal parade of poses too sour / I’m at zero so why should I bother?”

Barnes has long since established themselves as an expert at writing albums drenched in metaphor, imagery and manic changes of pace, and upping sticks from Athens, Georgia to Vermont to start the next phase of their career and life inspired much of the record’s lyrical content. The sense of dislocation inherent in a new beginning rubs up against the artist’s restless creative spirit in complex ways across the record’s duration, leading to the two-part closing salvo of ‘Poetry Surf’ and ‘Genius in the Wind’, where they conclude, “Trash music is my life / Just because you can’t doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.” They’ve made a career out of feeling the fear and doing it anyway; the version of them that we get on this record probably isn’t going to be around for long. Working things out as they go along is classic of Montreal, and Lady on the Cusp leans into that with songs that click hard after multiple listens. A grower with an outstanding payoff—if you wanted to explore that outwardly intimidating
discography, why not start here?

Pre-order Lady on the Cusp by of montreal HERE


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