Multi-instrumentalist Kevin Barnes has been at the top of his game for some years now, releasing new music every year since of Montreal's inception back in 1997. Barnes' love of the synclavier took of Montreal's 11th studio album into an experimental pop / psychedelic pop status rather than the indie pop of Montreal's previous albums are noticed for. The twee sounds of Satanic Panic in the Attic still make appearances, but not in the same manner as last year's Paralytic Stalks. Barnes' 11 album discography showcases his falsetto vocal, 'asthmatic energy', and down to earth lyricism. Take "Spiteful Intervention" from Paralytic Stalks, one of the most magical and imagery filled tracks of 2012: "It's fucking sad that we need a tragedy to occur to gain a fresh perspective in our lives. Nothing happens for a reason, there's no point even pretending you know the sad truth as well as I." We're here to dissect of Montreal's 12th studio album Lousy with Sylvianbriar - to work out if Barnes' child of Montreal is the psychedelic experimental up to date version of Bowie's Ziggy Stardust period, or just 'music for flaccid puritanical sex hating half humans'.
Drew Vandenberg returns to produce Lousy with Sylvianbriar after the sounding success of last year's Paralytic Stalks. Vandenberg's goal this time around is to achieve clarity and sophistication heard with his work on Deerhunter's Halycon Digest, but the nostalgic realism of 60s/70s recording techniques. This period of music has long been associated with of Montreal's sound. Barnes and his new found friends Rebecca Cash (vocals), Clayton Rychlik (drums, vocals), Jojo Glidewell (keys), Bob Parins (pedal steel, bass), and Bennet Lewis (guitars, mandolin) recorded Lousy with Sylvianbriar in just three weeks on a 24-track tape machine. He re-located to San Francisco, perhaps for a holiday, perhaps to live, whatever the reason, Barnes used it as an influence not just on his sound, but on his song-writing as heard with the opening track "Fugitive Air". The fog city psychedelia has been reciprocated with layered guitars and out of the ordinary percussion a la The Oh Sees. Barnes sings: "I'm a walking mausoleum, the scent of rotting flesh, mother always loved you best, liked your teeth upon her breast." His thought-provoking lyricism makes a return, with bigger demand on Lousy with Sylvianbriar. It makes for a devouring listen, requiring attention - "Obsidian Currents" opens with: "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, when you’re forced to face the physical world, you scurry like an insect."
Lousy with Sylvianbriar's first sound of a hit comes on the third track "Belle Glade Missionaries". Blues guitar dominates the instrumental with a croaky vocal fit for Black Francis. Barnes sings: "Belle Glade missionaries I’m here to steal your cocaine," continuing the unique vision Barnes' possesses when opening tracks. It continues down this long stretch of literary references and youthful expectations: "I have a sense you wanna be, the female Henry Miller - cynically referring to your lovers as your pricks and exploiting other peoples madness." Barnes loves to express his opinions through the medium of music, writing fantastic songs to evoke a sheer sense of strangeness, he makes you think, he makes you listen: "All the evil in the universe, there are no victims, only participants."
"Colossus" tells the sad story of a sibling and his/her family life: "Your mother hung herself in the national theatre, when she was four months pregnant with your sister, would have been 13 years old today, does that make you feel any less alone in the world? / Your dad I’m sure he tried his best, he thought you’d be better off living with your grandmother, he didn’t realise that she'd already given up, baby your family they are just losers." No singer-songwriter dares to go the extra mile to describe life in such detail as Barnes. He's always had a personal touch in his song-writing, but nothing as in depth as Lousy with Sylvianbriar. "Colossus" and it’s terrifying lyricism are backed by a mournful sounding piano and light acoustic guitar accompaniment. Barnes is backed by Cash on the vocals, somewhat different to Barnes' self-relying singular vocals with layers and delay. It gives "Colossus" that extra feminine touch, making the story sound distinguishable. These small changes allow Barnes to experiment from his multi-instrumental past, giving himself and other musicians around him freedom. There are no changes to Barnes opening lyricism however. "Triumph of Disintegration" has an ever-changing structure, a 'two songs in one' sort of structure. It’s not heavily reliant on a verse/chorus/verse structure. Instead the verse/chorus/verse universal song understanding has been replaced by an instrumental one/instrumental two/instrumental one structure. And it wouldn’t be right without a chaotic opening lyric, Barnes sings: "The last 10 days have been a motherfucker, I didn’t know if I’d survive."
This unconventional song structure re-occurs on "She Aint Speakin' Now". It begins with a western-esque guitar riff and the bumpy bass associated with of Montreal's past. Suddenly, all the smooth sounds such as an acoustic guitar and a slide guitar disappear for a distorted acoustic guitar and a thumping drum beat. Barnes then goes on to sing in the personalised style of Ray Davies of The Kinks, and the music isn't too far off that poppy garage rock sound either. These structures make for great songs because you never quite know when Barnes is about to drop something spectacularly different. He does this on the following track "Hegira Émigr", the confusing, reference heavy ninth track. In name, "Hegira Émigr" is referencing the migration of Islamic prophet Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina, to avoid assassination. Though the opening lyrics tell a different story, one of punk? Perhaps: "Up in the hills they are having a white riot, with no violence or protest for change, they simply buy it." Part of this references the Notting Hill riots in London, and perhaps a coy nod to The Clash's "White Riot" and the lyric: "All the power's in the hands of people rich enough to buy it." The following lyrics are just as confusing: "If you're thinking I’m Caucasian, well I’m actually grey, I was conceived on Ash Wednesday and stoned on Christmas day." The instrumental is bubbly, featuring a 50s-esque rhythm and beat, making "Hegira Émigr" the easiest Lousy with Sylvianbriar track to secretly dance to. It's also the most confusing lyrically - his imagery is so bizarre, it's all over the place: "She gave him head till she lost a tooth, that’s what you get for molesting people in the DJ booth."
Cash sings lead vocals on "Raindrop in My Skull", the cool, refreshingly light penultimate track. She sings, like Barns, in a spoken word form, to confusingly acute lyrics: "My guitar feels strange in my hands, I have almost no tucked up perceptions, on the TV there’s a Mexican horror film, it isn’t dubbed, I’m not really watching." There's always a free-form style of delivering lyrics with of Montreal. It's never simple, although simple rhyming does occur throughout of Montreal's discography. The lyrics just flow in a story-telling manner for listeners to hear the full picture without needless rhyming. N.B, these lyrics make me want to watch Cronos, the immense horror film directed by Guillermo del Toro.
From the vocal harmonies of "Sirens of Your Toxic Spirit" to the blues riff on "Belle Glade Missionaries", Lousy with Sylvianbriar honours of Montreal's past and looks to a nostalgic future with a new line-up and an old sound. The focus on lyricism is welcomed, with a touch of glam still present on tracks "Hegira Émigr" and "Amphibian Days". Behind this, there has been immense confusion surrounding the album title Lousy with Sylvianbriar. It was initially in lower-case, including the track listing, but has since returned to the correct grammatical connotation. Instead of perceived imagery or understanding, Barnes was more than likely taking a stand about how fans/critics list of Montreal as Of Montreal. He has a sense of correctness, and releasing an album all in lower-case is a role reversal confusing critics, just as they confuse Barnes by not writing of Montreal correctly - that’s just my assumption. Barnes can do whatever he wants with non-important grammar, as long as he keeps releasing music à la Lousy with Sylvianbriar, fans will be happy, critics will be happy, and I’ll be happy.