The name of the game for of Montreal has always been evolution. Their current incarnation, making its debut on their newest album Lousy With Sylvianbriar, favors whip-smart, sinewy rock songs, eschewing the dance pop they’ve embraced in recent years, while baring a faint resemblance to the classicist proclivities they favored early in their career. Yet Sylvianbriar is somehow leaner and more focused, lyrically assuming far darker tropes than their early efforts.
Emerging from Athens, GA in the mid-’90s, of Montreal shared a similar, escapist mentality with their Elephant 6 brethren, in thrall to the likes of the Who, the Beatles, and the Beach Boys. They crafted a few excellent records — Cherry Peel, The Gay Parade, and The Bedside Drama: A Petite Tragedy. While not as essential as seminal albums such as The Apples In Stereo’s Fun Trick Noisemaker, or Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over The Sea, these were nonetheless indispensable artifacts from a magical era of Athens pop music. But early on in particular, frontman Kevin Barnes differentiated himself with his sheer earnestness. There was something magical in the air on Cherry Peel, a voice seemingly devoid of guile providing a panoramic view of a rotoscopic dreamscape. The Gay Parade managed to tap into Barnes’s keen knack for expository character sketches, imbuing the likes of organ grinders and boxers with a certain winsome compassion.
These albums, and subsequent efforts Coquelicot Asleep In The Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse and Aldhis Alboretum, exhibited Barnes’s faculty for crafting playfully eccentric character sketches, all the while cobbling together melodies into irresistible pastiches.
Around the time of 2005’s The Sunlandic Twins, the band, now pared to just Barnes on the recordings, underwent a sea change, experimenting with electronic textures and disco-infused beats undergirding Barnes’ most personal lyrics to date. The live shows too underwent a profound evolution, using props, costume changes, and actors to achieve an altogether more theatrical experience, approximating the surrealism of a Fellini film. His brother David Barnes served as art director on these stage sets, while also crafting the artwork for many of their albums and designing much of their merchandise, an integral ingredient in their ever-shifting ethos. The apotheosis of these sets was perhaps the now-infamous October 2008 Roseland Ballroom show, which featured Barnes riding a white horse on stage while singing “St. Exquisite’s Confessions” from the then-unreleased Skeletal Lamping.
Barnes’s much-publicized bout with depression arose around this time. Triggered by a move to Norway with his wife Nina, and the subsequent birth of his daughter, Alabee, his songs became more inward looking. 2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are you the Destroyer? was the climax of these endeavors, a superb record rife with hyper-charged synth melodies belying plangent melodrama, equally cribbed from Brian Eno as Brian May. The record also found Barnes metaphorically transforming into Georgie Fruit, a Ziggy Stardust-esque alter ego, a disassociation of sorts which demarcated himself from his well-chronicled separation from his wife, with whom he would soon reconcile. Barnes has long maintained that the first half of Hissing Fauna represented his vulnerable side, with the album bifurcated by the epic “The Past Is A Grotesque Animal.”
Georgie Fruit’s id-dominated travails continue and are captured with alacrity on the stunning 2008 album Skeletal Lamping, still the band’s most ambitious album to date. Its schizoid sprawl is daunting at first, but repeated listens reveal an eminently catchy and rewarding record, a Dada-esque series of vignettes that somehow cohere into a deeply moving full-on album experience, in a sense an exorcism of Georgie Fruit and the demons that dogged Barnes post-separation.
Following up Skeletal Lamping was bound to be a daunting task, but Barnes again raised the bar by collaborating with Jon Brion on 2010’s False Priest. The album didn’t scale the lofty heights of its two predecessors, but with guest stars in Janelle Monáe and Solange Knowles, it certainly was sonically fascinating, perhaps the finest amalgamation of hip-hop and conventional pop accomplished by Barnes. Yet, there was something lacking here — it at times felt forced, and didn’t have the organic, off-the-cuff sense of danger so many of Montreal albums had engendered.
This changed a bit on 2012’s Paralytic Stalks, which returned to the confessional writing style largely absent since Hissing Fauna, albeit in a darker, more fractious tone. There’s a certain desperation at its heart, and while it isn’t a nervous breakdown record akin to Fauna, it exhibits a certain resigned dignity, and for that reason alone ranks among the act’s finest efforts.
The newly released Lousy With Sylvianbriar is yet another triumph for Barnes, tipping his hat to idols such as Neil Young, Gram Parsons, and The Rolling Stones. It’s a rock and roll record with thrust and swagger, done so without compromising any of the idiosyncrasies or vulnerabilities so endemic to of Montreal’s sound. It also illustrates that Barnes isn’t afraid to take audacious artistic leaps — he’s confident that his audience will grow with him, as they largely have so far. His only constant has been change, and let’s hope that this continues to be the rule for one of the most challenging and finest songwriters of the past twenty years.
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