Review Summary: Kevin Barnes, unplugged.
Over the course of sixteen years and twelve studio albums, of Montreal have made a living out of the maxim “change or die.” Most commonly united only by Kevin Barnes’s swirling, muddied neuroses and a flair for the dramatic, figuring out where of Montreal would go next became almost as much fun as actually listening to them. The problem became one of diminishing returns – the more kaleidoscopic rabbit holes the band clambered down and the increasingly fevered gender-bending that Barnes’s tortured personal narratives travailed, the harder it became for the average listener to untangle. Of Montreal, of course, has never made music for the “average” listener, so it should come as no surprise that Lousy with Sylvianbriar
is yet another reversal for a band that was just starting to master the chemical imbalances in their volatile formula with 2012’s Paralytic Stalks
. The true surprise, however, is that by paring down the bells and whistles to the bare, analog essentials, of Montreal have created a bracingly candid album that marks a welcome rejuvenation of the band’s sound.
Lousy with Sylvianbriar
is predictably unpredictable in the sense that it sweeps the deck clear once again by placing Barnes back on the organic, stripped-down song cycle that characterized his late ‘90s output, a transition that bears little resemblance to the unhinged electro-pop addict of the past several years. Barnes turning his manic whimsy inward is not a great shock – his has always been a voice eager to withdraw deep into his own psychoses as much as he has rode them proudly across stage and vinyl – and his songwriting, still so sharp and quintessentially odd, shows no signs of shrinkage in the brighter light. The band’s wardrobe this time out, though, is what raises eyebrows; a lush, rustic take on ‘60s and ‘70s rock, with a dash of tie-dyed alt-country that has few forebears in their discography. Instead of Barnes taking over the majority of the instrumental duties himself, session musicians were brought in to to work on parts and commit them live to tape, a process that gives Lousy with Sylvianbriar
more of a distinct, lived-in style than the increasingly messy patchworks Barnes had been painting in years prior. Slide guitar replaces the usual electro on opener “Fugitive Air,” while vocalist Rebecca Cash brings a nice retro country feel to the duet on “Raindrop In My Skull.” Even “Belle Glade Missionaries,” a track whose funky lurch may have found a home as a False Priest
outtake, revolves around an unctuous blues riff, and its (classically wordy) lyrics are sung with a sort of dust-choked desperation: “There are no victims in the universe – only participants.” That album art is a convenient signpost – just call it roots rock on an acid trip.
That Barnes can keep consistently navigating a road that must, at times, be an enigma even to him is symptomatic of the man’s uneasy genius. What makes Lousy with Sylvianbriar
a typically of Montreal album is Barnes’s effortless subversion of these classic rock idioms, his ability to distort the twangy harmonies and corn-fed heartland melodies with blindingly vivid, visceral lyrical imagery as deceptive and dark as it is gorgeously enunciated. Simply put, you don’t see Dylan penning a lyric like “she gave him head till she lost a tooth / that’s what she gets for molesting people in the DJ booth” on the otherwise straightforward Highway 61 Revisited
pastiche “Hegira Émigré.” At times, the relaxed vibe and relative lack of distractions makes the duds stand out that much more – “Colossus’” laissez-faire disposition doesn’t merit the familial tragedy Barnes languidly describes, while “Obsidian Currents” seems like little more than a showcase for Barnes’s gift with harmonies. On a song like “Sirens of Your Toxic Spirit,” however, you see why Barnes is still so respected as a songwriter, long after most of his Elephant 6 compatriots have been forgotten. Refreshingly lucid, Barnes’s recriminations to an ex are soft yet firm, illuminated by the kind of clarity that comes when Barnes allows himself room to breathe, supported only by a wistful mandolin and a warm, centered melody.
It’s a beautiful song, and a touching reminder that of Montreal don’t have to bare their wounds so nakedly to be effective performers. Barnes has always been a deeply idiosyncratic personality, and in doing so has created a body of work as wonderfully diverse and riotously bizarre as any in music. Lousy with Sylvianbriar
is a reminder, then, that Barnes is still aware of what brings fans to his altar. It’s not just his eccentric live show; not merely the genre-twisting soup of styles; not the Georgie Fruit dichotomy or all the psychological excess that has bled out through his speakers for years. It’s all of those and more, his ability to write songs that connect on an intimately human level in a manner touching and often unexpected. It’s still the dark, unsettling path of Montreal have always tread, but Lousy with Sylvianbriar
is proof that the deepest scars are not always the ones you see on the surface.