Given that the subtext — and, often, the text — of nearly every Of Montreal song is madness, you can’t expect rational career moves from bandleader Kevin Barnes. When 2010′s relatively accessible False Priest — the closest this psychedelic pop miscreant may get to a crossover — couldn’t capture the mainstream, the Athens, Georgia, firebrand fired back with 2012′s tangibly furious Paralytic Stalks. Instead of Priest‘s alt-R&B cameos from Janelle Monáe and Solange Knowles, Stalks paid tribute to blatantly discordant classical composer Krzysztof Penderecki.
Now Barnes spins another 180. Written during “a self-imposed isolation experiment” in San Francisco earlier this year, Lousy with Sylvianbriar is, according to Barnes, influenced by Sylvia Plath, Neil Young, the Flying Burrito Brothers and, um, the Grateful Dead. The typically control-crazed Barnes — who played all but the earliest Of Montreal discs mostly by himself — here recorded onto tape much of the album with his live band playing alongside in real time, without the computers that made the last several albums possible.
Of Montreal has for years played hard and tight in concert, and they do the same here, although with far more restraint. Sylvianbriar boasts more than the usual number of ballads, like the delicate “Sirens of Your Toxic Spirit,” which recalls the Stones of “Lady Jane”; or “Amphibian Days,” which suggests that band’s “Wild Horses”; or the similarly pastoral “Raindrop in My Skull,” where Rebecca Cash of fellow Athens band John French & the Bastilles takes the vocal reins.
Where there were once synths, there are oodles of guitars — wistful acoustics, noodling electrics and even a few weeping steel guitars. But Barnes hasn’t curtailed his thesaurus-enabled polysyllabic lyrical spews one iota, and although these band arrangements are in the context of his hyper-kinetic catalog somewhat laid back, his love songs to the bitter and bruised still move like tigers on Vaseline: Of Montreal cannot help but be more Bowie than Burrito Brothers, and that’s just fine.