In 1965, Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited changed the landscape of music for the next decade. From folk to psych, rock to country, all sorts of sounds blurred together, creating a free-for-all music scene that persisted into the early ’70s. Artists questioned everything following that year’s Newport Folk Festival — If Dylan could go electric, what rules were left? Nearly half a century later, that question’s moot, especially for Kevin Barnes and of Montreal. For two decades, Barnes and his Athens collective have shown little hesitation in hopping between genres and taking the sort of chances many feared before 1965.
It’s important to note this musical moment with regards to their twelfth studio album, Lousy With Sylvianbriar. In recent weeks, critics and fans have been citing the new effort as a callback to their earlier work, but really, it’s a celebration of the strange melting pot of genres that stewed about in 1965. Now, in the hands of most, such a concept would likely result in a dull, meandering homage, but for Barnes and Co., it’s the perfect thematic backdrop.
“I wanted to work fast and to maintain a high level of spontaneity and immediacy,” Barnes expounded on his decision to track parts live, referencing the recording styles of the late ’60s and early ’70s. And, although he assembled a motley crew of studio musicians ranging from Kishi Bashi to Rebecca Cash, he “wanted the songs to be more lyric-driven, and for the instrumental arrangements to be understated and uncluttered.”
That’s exactly what he produced. With Sylvianbriar, Barnes highlights himself as a lyrical poet, intelligently celebrating the era that inspired him. On “Blade Glade Missionaries”, he modernizes Barry McGuire’s war protest anthem “Eve of Destruction” by refocusing its sights on the pitfalls of a crumbling society. “They’re letting children get blown up in the schools today, so they can get them back into their factories,” he sings. These echoes in time continue to ring on “Sirens of Your Toxic Spirit”, in which Barnes does his best Jackson C. Frank, with lyrics like, “What I recall, remember best, is insanity and the clatter.” It’s as if he’s cracked his mind open and let his thoughts spill out, communicating them through Dylan’s overlapping sentence sprints, Sybille Baier’s lighter-than-air breaths, and a passionate vocal attack reminiscent of Phil Ochs’ 1965 masterwork, “I Ain’t Marching Anymore”.
Although Sylvianbriar works better as a whole than in parts, Barnes manages to offer up one of the strongest of Montreal songs in their large collection with “She Ain’t Speaking Now”. It’s the album at its most musically adventurous, with an explosive chorus that feels like Barnes’ way of nudging the listener to make sure they’re still paying attention. The song is probably what has caused many to call the album a return to old, if only because it’s the closest a listener has had in years to the stripped down passion and playfulness Barnes displayed on their 1997 debut, Cherry Peel. Yet, it’s in analyzing tracks such as these that his true talents present themselves; This is an artist who can change emotions on a dime, blend juxtaposing sounds with ease, and allow his personality to stamp even the most familiar melodies as documents unique to of Montreal and of Montreal alone.
In an over-saturated world of music where everyone’s grasping at a few moments in the spotlight, it’s refreshing to hear an album fully aware of its own artistic ambitions, content to see them realized without a second thought of anything more. Spread out the entire of Montreal collection and it becomes clear that Barnes is always moving forward, challenging the perception of his band’s music, and looking for new ways to present his sometimes chaotic, if not challenging thoughts on life. Each and every moment of Lousy With Sylvianbriar celebrates the breaking down of genre barriers that Dylan jumpstarted in 1965. It’s an album that looks to the past while illuminating perfectly the many talents of its contemporary creator.
Essential Tracks: “She Ain’t Speaking Now”, “Sirens of Your Toxic Spirit”, and “Blade Glade Missionaries”