Some bands seem just too massive to discuss critically in any reasonable way.
Over a 17-year career, of Montreal has released eleven full-length albums, nine EPs, and a number of non-album singles and compilations. Across this monstrous career, its albums have contained bits of twee indie pop, glam rock, 60’s-influenced psychedelia, electronic music, funk, as well as pieces snatched from countless other styles. Each stylistic left turn in the band’s discography has been both lauded as its greatest success and panned as its greatest failure.
The latest in that ever-increasing series of stylistic shifts finds of Montreal embracing late ’60s/mid-’70s rock and country on their 12th full-length album, Lousy With Sylvianbriar. The band’s frontman/chief songwriter Kevin Barnes has name-dropped Neil Young, the Grateful Dead and Flying Burrito Brothers as influences in the interview cycle leading up to this album’s release. The album’s press kit plays up the creative resurgence Barnes experienced during the recording of the album and its short, organic writing process, with Barnes himself linking his new writing methods to those of his stated influences.
As with the best albums from the second half of of Montreal’s career, Lousy With Sylvianbriar opens with an undeniable standout, first single “Fugitive Air”. Stomping glam rock (augmented with slide guitar that wouldn’t feel out of place on Satanic Panic in the Attic) sits pretty beside a vitalized variation on the poly-pop Barnes has mined since the band’s inception. While steeped in classic rock traditions reminiscent of everyone from Neil Young and the Rolling Stones to the MC5 and T. Rex, strip those away and this is still the same energized art rock as found on the more upbeat sections of Aldhills Arboretum or Satanic Panic in the Attic.
There are still plenty of twists present in Barnes’ songwriting, as what starts as a barreling rocker showcasing the confident garage rock bark Barnes displayed on the band’s “Fell in Love With a Girl” cover picks up instruments as it rolls along, and finds Barnes switching to the softer, more melancholy croon fans associate with the band about halfway through. The whole thing softens considerably as it spends its last minute dissolving into wordless “Lalala” and “Oooooohaaaah” vocalizations. “Fugitive Air” fuses new and old in a way that signals a new chapter in of Montreal’s musical life while acknowledging the band’s past.
Third track “Belle Glade Missionaries” is another instantly memorable song, anchored by a swinging, raucous riff and featuring some of Barnes’ most quotable writing since high-water-mark album Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? The song’s title missionaries want to “steal your cocaine,” while elsewhere characters want to be “the female Henry Miller” and “post naked .gifs of [their] epileptic fits”. While it’s one of the most wryly funny recent of Montreal songs, there’s a dark undercurrent that’s most evident in the song’s chorus, which laments “They’re letting children get blown up in their schools today/So they can get them back into their factories.” Despite its musical differences, especially to their recent material, in attitude and sentiment, this is vintage of Montreal.
One of the record’s best moments comes on the soft, string-backed “Raindrop in My Skull”. The song finds Barnes ceding the lead vocal spot to recently added member Rebecca Cash for a duet that may be the prettiest of Montreal song since Satanic Panic in the Attic’s “City Bird”. Barnes’ lyrics sound natural coming from Cash, and the strange, poetic writing sits snugly with the tender arrangement for, oddly enough, one of the most of Montreal-sounding songs on the album.
Sylvianbriar’s outside narrative of creative resurgence, along with Barnes’ continuously tumultuous relationship with wife Nina Grøttland (“Nina Twin” as she’s known in the band’s universe) makes it possible to read Cash as a surrogate June Carter to Barnes’ Johnny Cash, a stand-in for a presumed “other woman” who seems present in the album’s lyrics. “Raindrop in My Skull”, Cash’s most prominent appearance on the album is immediately followed by “Imbecile Rages”, a vitriolic send-off to just such an “other woman” character. “When you said to my woman at the show / That we were just desperately breathing life into a dead ghost / Do you really think these things you say / They won’t get back to me?” Whatever the song’s actual ties to Barnes’ personal life, its cathartic energy, aided by its straightforward arrangement, makes it a fitting closing track. And “Imbecile Rages” plays as the best kind of closing track, since its understated fade-out makes the album beg to be replayed as soon as it finishes.
Classic- and garage rock-style material like “Fugitive Air”, “Belle Glade Missionaries” and foot-tapping rocker “She Ain’t Speakin’ Now” is balanced by softer, more heavily folk and country indebted songs like “Raindrop in My Skull” and the airy, mesmerizing “Sirens of Your Toxic Spirit”. The manner in which the album’s style shifts from track to track without feeling disjointed is perhaps the best trick lifted from the classic rock playbook. Like Let It Bleed or Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, high-energy rock tracks appear beside the twang and strum of country and folk, the contrasting textures lending the whole a sense of movement and diversity.
This record’s success is ultimately not predicated on its choice in musical styles, but rather the verve with which Barnes approaches it. There’s something to that press kit mythologizing about the change of scenery (San Francisco) and recording method (three weeks, band in a room, tape machine) because for the first time in years, something of that loose, slapdash Elephant Six energy has re-entered of Montreal’s music, to the point where it wouldn’t be terribly surprising to find a march sequenced around track nine or ten.
One of a few criticisms to be made of the album is that its pacing flags slightly somewhere near its middle. While there are no duds here, “Colossus” and “Triumph of Disintegration” (despite the undeniable energy in the latter’s “The last ten days have been a motherfucker!” opening) bear most of the responsibility for that mid-album flabbiness. It’s not until “She Ain’t Speakin’ Now” ushers in the album’s strong last act that its pacing fully recovers.
The weight of expectations aside, Lousy With Sylvianbriar is a comfortable, understated collection of Americana-flavored art rock. While not reaching the flamboyant, glitter-dizzy heights of the band’s very best, it manages to be the band’s finest offering since the band’s 2006 crown jewel, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? Exactly where the album fits within the band’s catalog will probably be debated for as long as people talk about the band; where precisely you place it is irrelevant if the listening experience itself is this enjoyable.