On Lousy with Sylvianbriar, Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes seems to have abruptly left behind the baroque synth-centric soul of his past several albums in favor of something far simpler. The album doesn’t return to his earlier twee psychedelic phase; instead, we get a simple drums-bass-guitar combo, turning in bluesy, 1960s-inspired rock that feels far more austere and subdued than pretty much anything else Barnes has ever recorded. To be sure, many of the Of Montreal hallmarks are present—the verbose and psychodramatic lyrics, unpredictable, yet oddly catchy melodies and idiosyncratic song structures. This time, however, they actually sound like the work of a band, rather than a lone studio-tinkerer.
Although neither “sedate” nor “subtle” really fits anything Barnes does, Lousy with Sylvianbriar is, at least musically speaking, a relatively low-key album. Opener “Fugitive Air” set the southern/country rock tone that dominates the album, placing slide guitar in the foreground alongside Barnes’s slightly distorted vocals.
The stab at more rock-oriented sound works most of the time. Barnes provides his own take on the psychedelic blues-rock of Dylan circa Highway 61 Revisited (the rambling, pedal-steel adorned “Belle Glade Missionaries” and the “weird America” Dylan tribute of “Hegira Émigré”) in a way that illuminates the affinity between the two rather than coming off as imitation or gratuitous homage. Similarly, he manages to capture a dreamy late 1960s California Laurel Canyon vibe on album highlight “Amphibian Days,” while still sounding unmistakably like himself. He turns in one of his finest ’60s pastiches on “She Ain’t Speaking Now,” a track that reminds us of Barnes’s formidable strengths as a straightforward pop songwriter.
There are, however, serious problems here, arising mainly from Barnes’s lyrical approach. When Barnes keeps his focus on himself (as he has since Hissing Fauna), his tendency towards melodrama and excess is mitigated by his sincerity and the fact that, at the end of the day, it’s up to him how much he wants to share with us. But here, nearly every track feels like a hostile, personally directed attack at the “character” being described. Barnes describes the detached intellectual of “Obsidian Currents,” is described in nauseatingly clichéd terms (“all things cerebral and abstract / with no patience for impractical emotions”), and later eviscerates a character who said something mean about his band to his wife (“I guess you feel like you’ve got this lifetime pass and you can be a dick and it doesn’t matter.”) One wishes he would settle his scores elsewhere and otherwise.
The venom would be hard enough to take in any form, but it’s particularly unpalatable because it doesn’t fit the music; stripped of its lyrics, “Obsidian Currents” could be one of the loveliest ballads in the Of Montreal songbook. It feels as though Barnes has just gone scrounging through discarded lyrics and matched them with entirely unrelated music.
Even when this isn’t the case, Barnes seems to have degenerated into indie rock Jerry Springer: he informs the addressee of otherwise placid and meditative “Colossus,” for example, that her “mother hung herself in the National Theater when she was four months pregnant with your sister, who would have been 14 years today.” To the target of “Belle Glade Missionaries,” meanwhile, he proclaims “you post naked GIFs of your epileptic fit / And keep track of your hits.”
As with any Of Montreal album, there are plenty of nice sounds here; the arrangements remain inventive. Even as Barnes works with a more limited palette, the drums/bass/guitar ensemble sounds as tight and crisp as could possibly be desired. He just doesn’t seem to want to be as gentle as the music that he has created here, resulting in a frustrating, and sometimes rather irritating listen.