Artist: Of Montreal

Album: Lousy with Sylvanbriar

Last year, when writing about Of Montreal‘s 2012 album Paralytic Stalks, I gave the outline of their career progression, and how they’d come to pile so many layers of disco, funk, and modern orchestral music onto a framework of Sgt. Pepper pop stylings. I thought Paralytic Stalks was their masterpiece; neither the critical nor the marketplace consensus agreed with me, so anyway, that’s not what they’re doing now.

On Lousy with Sylvanbriar, Of Montreal haven’t merely backed up a step or three to where they were better loved. They’ve made … well, something Lousy with Sylvanbriarinstrumentally like an Eagles album, or maybe The Band in their more country-ish, non-epic modes. Languid rock riffs, acoustic guitar, pedal-steel, sometimes old-fashioned rock organ in the background. I don’t approve, exactly — it’s too close for my comfort to what the Decemberists did in 2011 with the King is Dead, quitting what had been their own excellent progression towards the riffs and energy and willfully mockable ambitions of Aqualung-era Jethro Tull. Also, steel guitar makes me shudder. But! Lousy with Sylvanbriar succeeds in setting Kevin Barnes’s songwriting in a context he hadn’t risked before: it puts his words, his melodies, and the band’s vocal harmonies more upfront than they’ve ever been. They prove worthy of the spotlight.

As a melodist, he’s fairly Beatles-classicist, by which I mean you could arrive at most of them by writing a familiar catchy melody (or chord progression), then grabbing one or two notes (or chords) per extended phrase and yanking them somewhere else that’s not obvious at all, but works. His vocals are clear and articulate, but nonetheless give off — in this country-ish context — a weird drawling vibe of laziness, as if Barnes couldn’t possibly deign to care what notes they tread on next. It’s a vibe that disguises both the stranger-than-average wanderings of his verses (which normally fit inside half an octave, but not in the same way anyone else’s would), and the occasional choruses where he’s leaping improbable routes across an octave or more. The harmony vox from Rebecca Cash can be sweet, but when they’re both joined by the voice of drummer Clayton Rylchik, they invariably sound strange, distorted, disorienting.

It is the lyrics that remain Lousy with Sylvanbriar‘s most distinctive feature. Of Montreal songs are always literate and precise, but have rarely been nice: Kevin Barnes displays positive feelings only about his favorite drugs and sex acts, while his relationship songs have tended to be some mix of demanding, spiteful, and desperate. Paralytic Stalks put the emphasis on “desperate”; Lousy with Sylvanbriar is *mean*. Now, even in grade school, when I did other sorts of things that I remember and cringe at, I was never once a bully, never once cheered a bully on. But the meanness of Lousy with Sylvanbriar … well, in its nerdishly insistent, amateur-psychoanalyst way, and its refusal to give an inch, I guess it feels like a chance to imagine for 40 minutes what sorts of pleasures being a total asshole a might bring.

I mean, look at how I write. *If* I was going to be hateful to my friends, I’d have to find friends I hated first, but then I’d totally teach myself to say things like “You like to think you can live beyond good and evil/ amputated from humanity on some lifelong intellectual retreat./ When everything is conceptual and all is rhetorical, you can feel so Of Montrealpowerful/ but when forced to face the physical world you scurry like an insect”. Or “Well you post naked GIFs of your epileptic fits/ and keep track of your hits, and your friends don’t give a shit/ and view your fugues with amusement”. Or “Your addictions and shiftiness inherited from your father/ I know you struggle to keep them in check, but at this point why even bother?/ What friendships you have left, they’re not derived from love, they’re just some warped form of charity”. Or “Your mother hung herself in the National Theater when she was four months pregnant/ with your sister who would’ve been thirteen years old today./ Does that make you feel any less alone in the world?” Or, and the irony here is dripping, “How could you allow these people whom you don’t even respect to rape your self concept and make your inner world an ugliness?”. As opposed to letting Kevin do it.

Each quote was from consecutive songs; I could keep going. He does. I’m not actively proud of enjoying it, but the fun of escapism is that it commits us to nothing, like deciding whose blood I’d drink if I became a vampire (which, honestly, wouldn’t you rather have a plan than not?). On my iTunes, Lousy with Sylvanbriar is followed at once by Paralytic Stalks, and I’m happier as soon as the pedal steel is gone and the flutes and booming timpanis are back, and Kevin is sounding more vocally passionate about his jibes. But they’re two different artworks, each unique, and, y’know. They’re both good.

– Brian Block

To see the rest of our favorites, visit our Favorite Albums of 2013 page!