The sprawling and prolific 16-year career of Kevin Barnes’ collaborative project Of Montreal begins to look like a discernible arc on Lousy With Sylvianbriar. Beginning in the late ’90s as an overlooked member of the Elephant 6 collective, the band initially dabbled in quirky twee-psych ditties before moving into adventurous, ’60s-inspired retro-rock and, later, modern synth-based glam-dance experiments. The latter is where Barnes found the most success, and hence has spent the most time, but, toward the end of his five-album electronica run, signs of backtracking began to show; last year’s Paralytic Stalks, for example, explored earlier musical eras (and earlier entries in his own discography) by incorporating bits of vintage funk-pop, jazz-prog, and acoustic folk.
Lousy With Sylvianbriar completes the U-turn, however, as Barnes powers down the computers, dusts off the tape machine, and plugs into some amps for the simplicity of throwback, guitar-driven garage-psych. Largely written during an isolated stay in San Francisco (but recorded in his home studio in Georgia), the album borrows liberally from the organic, spontaneous nature of that coast’s past music scene—Barnes has mentioned Grateful Dead and The Flying Burrito Brothers as two of the record’s influences—on tracks such as catchy opener “Fugitive Air,” a brash, twangy country-rock tune that morphs from a rollicking slide-guitar riff into a hazy, kaleidoscopic chorus.
There’s also a heavy gloss of the raw, sophisticated-yet-disaffected aesthetic of The Kinks and The Rolling Stones, particularly on the abrasive, acrid send-off “Imbecile Rages,” which concludes the album on the bitter screech “I have no hope for you anymore.” In between, Barnes seems to want to take another stab at styles he gave short shift to in the infancy of his catalog, which produces slightly less compelling results. For example, the honky-tonk-ish crunch of “Hegira Émigré” and the Bowie-aping ’70s rock of “Obsidian Currents” are admirable additions for the sake of diversity and completeness, but genre excursions such as these never seem like genuine directions for the band and therefore come off as inessential novelties. Overall, Lousy With Sylvianbriar is a satisfying link in bringing Barnes’ musical progression full-circle, but at times he seems to forget what made him so good at this stuff the first time around.