Of Montreal goes classic rock on Lousy With Sylvianbriar
Kevin Barnes and Co. make a hard tack for the center
After 15 years spent traipsing through fields of exuberant indie pop and careening into dense thickets of gnarled, ambitious art rock, Of Montreal seemed in danger of reaching a dead end. The ADD swirl of psychedelic pop, rock, and R&B of its early days had given way to 2012's aggressively opaque Paralytic Stalks, a jumble of an album every bit as challenging as 2007's high-water mark Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, but without the latter record's redeeming glimpse of an artist experiencing personal transition.
It's debatable whether Kevin Barnes — the songwriter, frontman, and driving force behind the Athens-based collective — saw Stalks as a wake-up call. But it's clear that for the band's new effort, Lousy With Sylvianbriar (Polyvinyl), he's crumpled up whatever road map had guided him thus far. Barnes uprooted to San Francisco, replaced his usual process of solo sessions and digital layering with a live band recording largely analog, and traded in the progressively fitful explorations of recent albums for the warm tones and sunny harmonies of '70s classic rock as practiced by Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and the Rolling Stones.
Those may not be the first artists that come to mind when discussing even the shinier corners of Barnes' catalog. But a spin through Lousy With Sylvianbriar makes it clear that he knows this territory well. Which is not to suggest that Sylvianbriar traffics in stylistic mimicry. From the opening bars of "Fugitive Air," there's no mistaking this for Harvest or Exile on Main Street: The song kicks off with a sprightly slide-guitar riff laid over a head-bobbing beat, but in no time Barnes' familiar nasal delivery and elliptical musings (though far more refined than on recent outings) ground the proceedings in recognizable Of Montreal territory.
The instrumentation, especially on slower numbers like "Sirens of Your Toxic Spirit" and the lilting "Obsidian Currents," establishes an appealingly organic vibe. In places, this airier feel meshes surprisingly well with Barnes' idiosyncratic tendencies, such as the way his rambling lyrics, stuffed into verses with little regard for pace or phrasing, recall the conversational, shambolic mid-'60s Dylan of Bringing It All Back Home or Highway 61 Revisited.
At other times, the dichotomy between these bright arrangements and Barnes' darker subject matter ("They're letting children get blown up in their schools today/So they can get them back into their factories," he sings during the chorus of the rootsy shuffle "Belle Glade Missionaries") creates a tension that sinks into the skin and lingers long after the track is over. "There is a virus in your tenets/Don't be naive, you know it's true," Barnes sings during the swelling ballad "Obsidian Currents," the velvet production masking the urgent slap of the song's admonishment: "And if you don't protect yourself/Obsidian currents/Will devour you."
That contrast occasionally manifests in the music as well, in the way the jarring verse/chorus transitions in "Triumph of Disintegration" undercut the familiar pleasures of the "ooh oohs" and the appealing guitar line that ends the song.
When you've spent more than a decade lurching from one experimental genre to another (and perhaps creating a few new ones along the way), eventually the only truly radical move left is a hard tack to the center. In the slide guitar, pedal steel, strings, and pastoral keys that permeate Lousy With Sylvianbriar, Kevin Barnes crafts a musical backdrop that complements his oblique but poignant reflections every bit as effectively as the lo-fi pop and whimsical indie rock of his most artistically efficacious periods. And while it's doubtful he'll return to this exact patch of ground anytime soon, the album leaves one looking forward to seeing where he ventures next.