Who could have expected this? For a band who are seemingly okay with prioritizing quantity over quality, it’s certainly impressive that Lousy With Sylvianbriar, Of Montreal’s 12th studio album, is the band’s best in a long, long time. Yes, some of the band’s most popular material comes in the form of dark pop songs that soundtrack Outback Steakhouse commercials, and their past few efforts have been sub-par.
Yet lest we forget that Of Montreal is behind the occasional wildcard like 2001’s excellent, weird, and all-over-the-place Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies. The classic rock-inspired Lousy With Sylvianbriar is one of those wildcards. Every once in a while, Kevin Barnes and company reinvent themselves and remind you why you loved them so much in the first place: because they’re shapeshifters.
What’s funny is that Of Montreal was previously so weird that they could only essentially change by sounding more straightforward, and Lousy With Sylvianbriar starts with a pretty straightforward pop rock song. Of Montreal have been known to excellently cover punk songs like The White Stripes’ normally-untouchable Fell in Love With A Girl. But on opener Fugitive Air, Barnes goes even further back in time: to Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones. If you were to hear Fugitive Air on classic rock radio, you might think it’s the one Stones song you’ve never heard before, or perhaps The Kinks circa 1970.
Meanwhile, on Obsidian Currents, Barnes sounds like a Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie collaborating with mid-1970s Pink Floyd, except for the fact that he’s threatening his audience: “There is a virus in your tenets / Don’t be naïve, you know it’s true / And if you don’t protect yourself / Obsidian currents will devour you.” And on Belle Glade Missionaries, Barnes does his best Gallagher brother impersonation. Three songs in, and nothing on Lousy With Sylvianbriar sounds like anything else Of Montreal has done before, let alone anything else on the album itself.
But what separates Barnes from his influences is his trademark brutal honesty, which is sometimes laden with poetry and metaphors and sometimes straight up blunt. Sirens of Your Toxic Spirit exemplifies the former, as Barnes sings, “The flume of your struggle is flooded with sorrow and it poisons everybody near.” But that doesn’t hit as hard as the prime example of the latter, Colossus, as Barnes opens the song by singing, “Your mother hung herself in the national theatre when she was four months pregnant with your sister, who would have been 13 years old today / Does that make you feel any less alone in the world?” You can tell that Barnes is being a downer when he abandons any sort of pop songwriting element or rhyme scheme to make a point. On the same song, when Barnes sings about self-destruction, he isolates his voice high in the mix, forcing you to face his melancholy. Similarly, Triumph Of Disintegration starts with Barnes singing that “the last 10 days have been a motherfucker” over, well, nothing. But Barnes doesn’t need only swear words to emphasise what he’s trying to say; he uses minimal or old-school methods of production equally well to do so.
And when the music is gorgeous, it’s easier to stomach Barnes saying to someone that his or her friendships are a result of charity rather than genuine love. For instance, at least he hides his attacks on Sirens of Your Toxic Spirit behind Abbey Road-era Beatles-like harmonies, while Triumph Of Disintegration features some impressive guitar solo work as it comes to its own end, making you forget how mean Barnes can be. In the grand tradition of rockers who have music to cure their own isolation and misery, Barnes and Of Montreal have entered a great one in the canon with Lousy With Sylvianbriar.