Manchester Academy 2, 5/10/2010
The experience of seeing of Montreal on tour is rather akin to watching a multi-headed psychedelic animal tear itself to pieces on the stage in front of you, the dismembered body parts grappling and struggling, before somehow fusing in a harmonic expression of unison and solidarity. And then, the night terrors recommence! I recently had the good fortune to see this joyful, spiteful cycle of decomposition and reformation play out in Manchester (so much to answer for), and found myself thinking about how this form of expression relates to contemporary philosophies of the self.
Post-modernist philosophy has challenged traditional ideas of the self as a single, unitary concept. The demands of life are myriad and often contradictory, and thinking, feeling or behaving in the same way across all situations would be impossible. Therefore more recent thought has conceived of the self as a fragmented concept, comprised of multiple aspects that think, feel and behave in very different ways. The dynamics between these different fragments, or configurations, are what give rise to the self as a whole. Each of these configurations is a pattern of thoughts, feelings of behaviours that together are conceptualised by the individual as reflecting a certain distinct aspect of themselves. For example, in therapy, a client might describe that a part of herself feels like a ‘little girl’ who is vulnerable and seeking protection, while another part of her feels like ‘a real bitch’ who takes pleasure in causing upset to others. When these configurations become overly dissociated from each other, it can lead to split-personality disorder, but a healthy balance between these voices is a normal and psychologically protective way of being.
Bearing this fragmented view of the self in mind, take a look at the attached photos from the of Montreal show. There are tons of people in costume: escaped mental patients, Mexican wrestlers and fish-headed demons. This might suggest that of Montreal is a band writing about lots of different characters with different stories to tell. This isn’t strictly true. Of Montreal is really the one-man recording project of Kevin Barnes, and the majority of the songs from his recent albums have been about one thing: the ups and downs of his own marriage from his perspective. The other musicians onstage are there to flesh out Barnes’s songs and they contribute a lot. But there is no mistaking that this show is all Kevin Barnes. On his records, Barnes often multi-tracks his voice, so he can harmonise with multiple versions of himself. What all this implies is that the different costumed dancers are all part of Barnes, they are all different configurations of his own personality. The gurning guys in straightjackets could reflect the madness of his love, the Mexican wrestlers might expose the violence and theatricality of his being in an unstable relationship, while who knows what the fish-head on stilts could represent?
These configurations of Kevin Barnes’s self-concept are present the whole time, in dynamic relationships with each other. Person-centred theorists believe that allowing all the configurations of the self to express themselves is a healthy way of existing, even when those configurations are destructive or unpleasant. The of Montreal live show is a celebration of the ever-changing dynamics between the different fragments of the core of one person’s humanity, where each configuration is allowed a voice. Sometimes these voices talk over each other, creating a disharmonic mess of noise, out of which can rise the beautiful sound of different parts of our selves responding individually to unique situations.