Innocence Reaches begins with a query. "How do you identify?" coos a robotic voice over a strikingly modern mix of bright synthpop and surging rave. The question too feels very of its time—as outdated ideas about gender and attraction are being overturned—but it's also a fair ask whenever of Montreal debuts an album.
The project's 14th LP follows two full decades of mercurial creative mania: swallowing up '60s psych-pop, Prince-ly funk, and glammy prog in turn; morphing freely between full-band affair and cloistered confessional booth; comprising lyrics both painfully personal and absurdly fantastical; and recently drawing site-specific inspiration from culture capitals like San Francisco or New York City. The thread that runs through it all is Athens, GA's Kevin Barnes, and Innocence Reaches finds him at his most light-hearted in years, working a Parisian stint, Top 40 sounds, and his newfound single status into the kaleidoscopic swirl. Even as he continues to sift the sonic and emotional detritus of his past, Barnes sums up his current mood in the opener's title: "let's relate."
The most immediate surprise is the sound. Innocence Reaches is touched by contemporary electronica, indie pop, and EDM. For the first time in his career, Barnes tuned into now. "Forever I've been detached from current music," he says. "I got into this bubble of only being in some other time period. I came up picking apart the Beach Boys, The Beatles, and symphonic pieces. But last year, I was hearing Jack Ü, Chairlift, Arca, and others, thinking about low end and sound collage. It was an extra layer to geek out on."
Paris helped with that. Barnes lived in a friend's studio for two weeks. It was in an apartment complex and, as he prefers to work at night, he couldn't thrash loud instruments for fear of noise complaints from the neighbors. But the in-house arsenal of vintage synthesizers and drum machines was fair game—check the skittering beats of "a sport and a pastime" and thick hum of "chap pilot."
By day, Barnes wandered Père Lachaise Cemetery, sat at cafés and wrote poems, read Jeans Ganet and Cocteau, or eavesdropped on conversations he couldn't translate. "Being in that place where no one looks at me twice and I can't even understand the language was like entering a parallel universe," recalls Barnes. "It was cathartic and inspiring to amputate myself from my normal life and feel like an individual outside of all the baggage and memories."
Enjoying anonymity, he sorted through the inner wreckage left by his divorce two years prior, and took stock of the briefer relationships since. "my fair lady" bids adieu to a familiar figure over sax-streaked disco-funk, but we soon meet Sarah from Detroit on darkwave dream "ambassador bridge," and Gabrielle the Athenian Beach Goth amid the trappy space-glitch of "trashed Exes." In "les chants de maldoror," our hero cooly declares, "We only act nicely when we're ruining hotel beds/I greeted you in a hundred doorways." Innocence Reaches continues of Montreal's recent autobiographical streak, which finds Barnes "fetishizing reality," as he puts it.
But he's concerned with a broader reality as well. "it's different for girls" is an exploration of the "dilemme féminin". CombiningDaft Punk's aptitude for groove with LCD Soundsystem's wit—an endlessly quotable track that has Barnes outlining the dangers inherent in binary gendering: "It's different for girls,from when they are children they're de-personalized, aggressively objectified..." and later Barnes sings "It's different for girls, they are mercurial creatures, not a masculine dissonance or sexual currency". The song is less feminine anthem and more pop exegesis of societal codes. "though some women are demons all of them are God". Indeed.
Apropos, Innocence Reaches' cover design was an attempt by a new first-time father—Kevin's brother David—to express his "wonderment for the female anatomy." And the aforementioned "let's relate" was indeed inspired by trans issues, a subject dear to Barnes' heart. "I have a history of gender-bending in performances, but that's also always been a part of my identity as a human," he says. "I'm thankful to have an outlet for that, to express that and not get chased out of town or beat up. I think we're moving in the right direction now." The song is a call to find common ground in simply being human: "I like that you like you/I think that you're great/I want to relate," he sings cheerily.
Innocence Reaches features darker moments to be sure—isolation, anger, indifference, and the feeling that, like a Truffautfilm, madness lurks just outside the frame—but as Barnes explains, "Epiphany comes from breakdown. If you can stay open and vulnerable, the nebulous becomes transparent. That's one of the magical aspects of writing from personal life."
Sometimes you've gotta intentionally court a little chaos in order to make one of the best, weirdest, brightest, catchiest, and most inventive albums in your already incredible catalog.