It’s no longer hard for artists working alone to make it sound like they’re with a full band. Where there was something depressingly lonely about the “backing band” settings on a 1980s Casio keyboard, the keyboard almost mocking the artist for not having any friends (Me. It was me alone with the keyboard), now people can wait in their dentist’s office and build lush tracks featuring hundreds of sounds and instruments. But as of Montreal reminds us on UR FUN, getting different sounds onto tape is no longer the challenge for solo artists. The true skill resides in making it feel not like multiple instruments, but real, live humans. UR FUN lives up to its title, through 80s-inspired production and melodies, but also through a band-like warmth.
of Montreal is Kevin Barnes, actually of Athens, Georgia. While he usually works with collaborators, UR FUN was made alone in his home studio. Going from working with people to working alone can be tough for anyone, as every article about remote work reminds us. Without the counterbalance of interactions to keep things light, but also, just to advocate for restraint, these kinds of records can get very dense and serious. That’s not a concern here, as Barnes‘ production is thick and interesting, but also has a lightness that allows the tracks to bounce along.
The album embraces some 1980s darkness. Not necessarily in a New Order kind of way, but while Barnes said UR FUN was inspired by Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual and Janet Jackson’s Control, there are also flashes of David Bowie and Ric Ocasek. Ocasek emerges in “Get God’s Attention By Being An Atheist,” mostly in the vocals, which pull up just short of bratty, over a thrashing Euro-beat and a swirl of guitars and keyboards that are decidedly un-Ocasek but which give the track the reckless joy of watching a child fingerpaint in someone else’s home.
“You’ve Had Me Everywhere” is the most 80s track on the record, a straight-forward take on the genre that’s sweet and sincere. The groove slithers like it’s on skates and the production is flawless. The drums don’t pretend to be human, but manage to establish a human-like presence. Barnes’ voice is unadorned, letting us hear him as he is, and not what he sounds like through a tangle of effects. It perfectly demonstrates his talents as a songwriter and a producer.
UR FUN also features some simpler songs, production-wise, that have more of a New Wave grit. “Don’t Let Me Die In America” is built upon a slashing guitar and Barnes’ processed voice, which also takes on a British tint. The layered vocals make it feel like he’s working with a band (and led to my surprise that he made this album by himself). “20th Century Schizofriendic Revengoid-man” is similarly New Wave, but with even more of a punk edge. However, the edge is tempered with beautiful breaks within the song that keep it from feeling too severe.
Nostalgia is a complicated feeling. If you’re too deferential to it, you risk repeating the mistakes of the past. But if you’re too committed to your own path, you’re not really feeling all that nostalgic, are you? Barnes nails the 1980s vibe perfectly, without sounding like he’s trying to place something on the Fast Times at Ridgemont High reboot soundtrack. Although, having said that, if someone does decide to reboot that film, UR FUN should be the entire soundtrack.
review by Steven Ovadia