At the risk of uttering heresy, I think of Montreal mastermind Kevin Barnes may be the indie generation’s David Bowie. In its upper registers, Barnes’ voice recalls none other than Ziggy Stardust, especially in a live setting. And like the Thin White Duke, he’s made a career out of a flamboyant, borderline menacing stage show and a dazzling musical chameleonism, capable of the twisted Toy Town pop of 1999’s The Gay Parade, the electro-indie-psych funhouse of 2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, and everything in-between. So when Lousy with Sylvianbriar (2013) opens with a blast of slide guitar straight off Exile on Main Street, it may not be what we’ve come to expect from of Montreal, but that’s par for the course.
Leaving the claustrophobic insularity of recent efforts behind, Barnes decamped to San Francisco to record this latest record more or less live on a 24-track. The decision makes sense, as this new material draws heavily on the kinds of records that would’ve been recorded the same way back in the day. “Triumph of Disintegration” invites those Bowie comparisons, with a bitchy glam chorus straight out of 1972. Elsewhere “Sirens of Your Toxic Spirit” recalls John Lennon at his most melancholic (“Julia,” “Oh My Love”), “Amphibian in My Skull” echoes the classic country-rock sounds of Neil Young, and “Hegira Émigré” brings to mind Bob Dylan c. 1965. of Montreal’s penchant for stylistic whiplash is still in evidence throughout. But it’s more muted; like the recording process, the songs themselves are more straightforward, and so in many ways more accessible and emotionally satisfying than much of the band’s more convoluted work.
Lyrically, Barnes is as smart and as biting as ever. He’s less dense and elliptical than usual, however, perhaps mirroring the stripped-down ethos of the music. Dylan’s influence is unsurprisingly palpable, especially in Barnes’ caustic put-downs of lovers and acquaintances. The similarity struck me especially on “Belle Glade Missionaries,” with lyrics (directed at an undisclosed “you”) as vicious as “Positively 4th St.”: “Will you post naked gifs of your epileptic fits/And keep track of your hits and your friends don’t give a shit?” The same bile runs through the following verse from the Meddle-like “Obsidian Currents”:
You like to think that you can
Live beyond good and evil
Amputated from humanity
On some lifelong intellectual retreat
Everything is conceptual and
All is rhetorical
You can feel so powerful
Or how about the venomous closer, “Imbecile Rages,” which bears more than a passing resemblance to Dylan’s own “Idiot Wind”:
Your folks, they’re such lovely people
I can’t understand where you came from…
The pollution from your imbecile rages are licking at your heels
Plotting red streaks across the desert of my eyes
I have no hope for you anymore!
Barnes isn’t as good as Mr. Zimmerman, of course; and that means that, as erudite and cutting as his observations may be, his pervasive negativity, and the clear pleasure he takes in his own cleverness, deprive his songs of the universality that characterizes Dylan’s finest work.
That said, an artist who can draw reasonable comparison to Bob Dylan, Neil Young, David Bowie, and the Rolling Stones, all in the space of a single record, has a lot going for him. On “Belle Glade Missionaries,” when Barnes sings: “Can’t trust my instincts lately/They don’t feel organic/They feel more synthetic,” he’s both right and wrong. Right, in that his instincts are distinctly synthetic, insofar as his strength as a musician lies in taking decades’ worth of influences and synthesizing them into something familiar-sounding yet new and unpredictable. Wrong, in that the results of this synthesis on this latest record sound completely organic. It’s likely that of Montreal’s next will see another 180 in terms of sound and aesthetic. Until then, Lousy with Sylvianbriar is a triumph of (dis)integration.
- of Montreal – “Lousy with Sylvianbriar” (revforrad.wordpress.com)
- of Montreal – “Lousy With Sylvianbriar” – ALBUM REVIEW (jakobsalbumreviews.wordpress.com)
- of Montreal – “Belle Glade Missionaries” (stereogum.com)
- Stream Of Montreal Lousy With Sylvianbriar (stereogum.com)
- KCRW Presents: Of Montreal (npr.org)
- Review: Of Montreal, ‘Lousy With Sylvianbriar’, 4/11/2013 (jackprescott.wordpress.com)