Since at least 2007′s career-defining Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?, Kevin Barnes has used Of Montreal as his own personal confession booth, psychotherapy session, and anger management. Each of the “band”‘s last four albums were written and recorded almost exclusively by Barnes (barring the occasional notable guest appearance), focused almost exclusively on his twin obsessions of self-identity and sexual psychosis, and, culminating in last year’s at times impenetrable Paralytic Stalks, became increasingly insular and inward-facing.
Lousy with Sylvianbriar comes as act of comparative light relief after Paralytic Stalks‘ exercise in pure self-flagellation, though how far the phrase “light relief” is appropriate with regards to an album containing the lyric ”they’re letting children get blown up in their schools today/So they can get them back into their factories” is debatable. The very fact that Barnes is attempting a Dylanesque political tract and even recognizing an external world, however, is some small measure of progress, one which he acknowledges when he sings, on ‘Triumph of Disintegration’, ”you had to forgive your enemy because it was making you psychotic to keep fighting him inside of your head”. To that end, this is the first of Montreal album since arguably 2002′s Cocquelicot Asleep in the Poppies to feature a proper band, who played and recorded their parts as one, and who sound surprisingly assured for a group of people thrown together in Kevin Barnes’ home studio for a three-week recording session.
‘Triumph of Disintegration’ opens with the line ”The last ten days have been a motherfucker/I didn’t know if I’d survive”, which could comfortably be understood as being about the writing, recording, and production of the album. Everything right down to the artwork (contrast its simple Ralph Bakshi-esque image with David Barnes‘ endlessly complex drawings for most of the band’s previous albums) feels immediate and fresh; there is a spontaneity that runs through the whole record, refreshing especially in comparison to the most disappointing moments from of Montreal’s recent past, which often suffered from a stilted over-production and over-thinking. Barnes has claimed that Lousy is an attempt to hark back to the Summer of Love-inspired collective albums of the early 70s, albums written on the fly by a group of musicians who wrote and developed the songs as they played them.
This has benefits and drawbacks for an act like of Montreal, so clearly defined by the singular vision of one man: what does it mean for that vision when others are contributing? At times, it means that certain tracks fall flat in a way that we’re just not used to hearing with this band. Even when of Montreal fail, they usually fail interestingly, but here entire tracks pass by without a moment of noteworthiness. The folkish fugue of ‘Amphibian Days’ is five minutes the whole album could comfortably do without, especially as it comes sandwiched between two of the album’s strongest moments, the aforementioned ‘Triumph of Disintegration’ and the brilliant ’She Ain’t Speaking Now’ - the latter of which exemplifies the benefits of Barnes relinquishing some musical control. The band pull off a pitch-perfect impression of Rust Never Sleeps-era Neil Young, turning out the kind of old-fashioned rocker that Barnes had seemingly forgotten how to make. Bob Parins, credited here with pedal-steel and bass guitar, deserves particular credit for opening out areas which have often remained unexplored in recent of Montreal efforts.
The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris and Neil Young all get name-checked on the ambitious roll-call of inspirations listed on the album’s press release, which highlights another potential problem: since no-one else really sounds like of Montreal, how do of Montreal sound when they’re trying to sound like someone else? The truth is that despite such influences being worn firmly on their sleeves, Kevin Barnes is still front-and-centre, and his lyrics are definitively his own. It’s hard to imagine any of the above cramming an opening line as dark as ”your mother hung herself in the National Theatre when she was four months pregnant with your sister” into a gentle bluesy jam, as on ’Colossus’, or engaging such esoteric imagery as the “raindrop in my skull” from the Rebecca Cash-sung track of the same.
It’s difficult to say where Lousy with Sylvianbriar will eventually fit into the of Montreal canon. The stronger songs sound intentionally raw and impulsive; the weaker songs like demos waiting to be fleshed out. At its simple hook-laden best it reminds you what an immediate and intuitive songwriter Kevin Barnes can be; at its worst it feels like little more than a diversion. After the hysteria and schizophrenia of the post-Hissing Fauna era, though, a diversion might be just what Kevin Barnes needed to get him firing on all cylinders again.