Review: of Montreal – Paralytic Stalks
Published on February 17th, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
The buzz: Athens, Georgia genius Kevin Barnes releases eleventh studio album under of Montreal moniker, despite having more or less done it solo ever since 2004’s magnificent Satanic Panic in the Attic. Features string arrangements by Kishi Bashi, and perhaps Barnes’s most brazenly soul-baring set of lyrics to date. He told Pitchfork in September…
“There’s some moments on this record that are very different from anything I’ve ever done before. It’s a bit more esoteric, and it’s probably not something everybody’s going to like. I can see a lot of people having problems with it, but I can also see a lot of people loving it. I feel like so many records nowadays are disposable– you’re not really expected to listen to the whole album, and no one does. With this record, I wanted something that was more of an experience that you would listen to from start to finish and have a very deep personal connection to. The songs are way more intimate and confessional.”
Sounds like: One man’s descent into madness, as it were, with flashes of the songwriting brilliance we all know and love shining through along the way. If 2010 album False Priest was the eccentrically funky sound of someone living the dream, then Paralytic Stalks is the uncomfortable comedown where infidelity and chemical-fuelled depression sweeps that lifestyle away and replaces it with deep introspection, the album’s lyrics suitably replete with home truths.
Opener “Gelid Ascent” sounds the first warning shots, bursting in with an otherworldly sound collage after seven seconds of silence, then swelling up in the mix like the darkness in Barnes’s own thoughts, laid bare, put out there early on to infuse even the album’s sunnier moments with a thread of malcontent. It’s clear that, perhaps more so than any of Montreal album to date, this is going to be an aural experience first, a collection of songs second.
“Spiteful Intervention” gets underway with one of several moments across the album that, while pointed, feels as if it could have benefitted from a slightly more reined-in approach to the lyrics (False Priest suffered from this too to some degree): “It’s fucking sad that we need a tragedy to occur to gain a fresh perspective in our lives/Nothing happens for a reason, there’s no point even pretending/You know the sad truth as well as I”. Still, this leads on to some gently trotting and princely harmonic funk, eventually rearing the catchy-as-heck refrain of “I spend my waking hours haunting my own life/I made the one I love start crying tonight/And it felt good/Still, there must be a more elegant solution”, which is delivered with such cracked, maniacal fervour that you can almost visualise the phrase “raw emotion” etching itself cursively into every review.
Again, the line “Lately all that I can produce is psychotic vitriol that really should fill me with guilt/But all I have is asthmatic energy” renders Barnes’s delivery spluttering, words stumbling into each other, crammed into a phrasing that can’t quite accommodate them, but perhaps this is the effect he was going for. Certainly, this frenzied babbling ontrasts consummately with the ensuing disco-pop of “Dour Percentage”, which begins with windswept flutes and Hal Blaine drum fills before settling into what sounds like a lost ELO classic: “The speakers are blown/This planet is an orphanage” intones Barnes in the smooth, milky timbre that essentially represents his default setting. It’s blissful stuff and seems to fit an extraordinary amount of ideas into just four minutes and thirty-five seconds, including a psychedelic final section that sounds like the album reasserting itself as an aural experience after a more traditional Barnes-pop workout.
Tellingly, though, “Dour Percentage” is the most memorable melody here. The fantastically titled “We Will Commit Wolf Murder” pits a classic soul feel against an old-school hip hop beat before taking a sharp turn into paranoid, freaked-out electro, Barnes repeating “there’s blood in my hair” over a beat that pounds with more menace than it probably would in isolation from the sonic melee at hand.
“Malefic Dowery” is fine stuff, but its Bacharachian horns and alluringly psychedelic Surf’s Up vibe still aren’t enough to propel it into the ‘instant classic’ status inhabited by so many of Barnes’s prior works, while the tangential cosmic funk of “Ye, Renew the Plaintiff” erupts into Steven Drozd-like ‘Mickey Mouse on fire’ wailing, and subsequently the kind of wig-out that Barnes’s previously more concise songwriting tended to shy away from. The lyrics rage away with lines like “I can think of nothing but getting my revenge/Make those fuckers pay” and “Everyone’s so unstable on my mother’s side/And emotionally barren on my father’s side”; a far cry from The Gay Parade, I’m sure you’ll agree, but the light vs dark motif continues with the strange duality of lovely, looped flutes and an eerily screeching string section.
All manner of disturbing cacophony battles with the more traditional elements at play, like someone smashing up someone else’s perfectly sculpted sandcastle, and it even ends with a piano note allowed to ring out à la “A Day in the Life”. Crazy stuff. However, although it’s unfair to use Barnes’s wonderful back catalogue as a stick to beat him with, it’s hard to see this going on anyone’s personal of Montreal ‘best of’.
“Wintered Debts” is no barrel of laughs either, variously referencing “so much bitterness”, “ego sickness” , “self-hatred” and “my failures” – “I tried to call you from a bathroom in Sao Paulo/But I was too drunk to formulate any sort of earthly language” is a particularly memorable line here – and that cracked, maniacal delivery is the icing on the cake in terms of reinforcing the confessional, ‘descent into madness’ effect . (Rocksucker pictures Marge Simpson dressed as Blanche DuBois, swinging to and fro from a harness attached to the ceiling, but you might get something different.)
“Father, will we starve to death?” and “It’s hard to sympathise with those that won’t fight for themselves/I can’t hold both our faces off the flames much longer” bring the paranoia well and truly to the fore, paving the way perfectly for the filmic, otherworldly sonic patchwork of “Exorcismic Breeding Knife”. In the afore-linked Pitchfork interview, Barnes described this track as “kind of polarising in a strange way”, which would appear to be a mild-mannered way of saying “totally off its rocker”. Pleasing sounds are pitched against jarring sounds, furthering the implied theme of struggle for sanity; it’s art, and impressively put together, but you’d be hard-pressed to fall in love with it, especially at over seven minutes long.
Closer “Authentic Pyrrhic Remission” gets a sort of ‘mothership funk’ on, going on to flaunt a dazzling display of songwriting several light-years away from earnest emoting over strummed C and G chords. It’s confusing, disorienting, and again spirals off into the kind of “twentieth-century modern classical music” described by Kevin in the Pitchfork interview. Those mad, screeching strings jostle for space with their more soothing counterparts, before we are carried out by comfortingly tinkled ivories, atop of which is:
“’Til this afternoon I was in exile/Now that word is obsolete/There are no nations, no concept of ego/Our illumination is complete”; it’s like an announcement of a better tomorrow delivered backwards through time via the medium of suspiciously weary-sounding piano.
Suspiciously insomuch as Barnes’s voice sounds dryly detached, dehumanised even, as if he’s lobotomised and being fed the line. It’s one final conflict on an album teeming with it.
In a few words: Not abundantly likely to sit well with long-term fans of the band, and perhaps not poppy enough to attract many new ones, but Kevin Barnes has nevertheless fashioned a dense, complex and brutally honest album that may well end up taking listeners a few years to make better sense of. Patience required, and in of Montreal’s case, wholly merited.
Kind of like a cross between: The Flaming Lips – At War With the Mystics and The Divine Comedy – Regeneration
“Authentic Pyrrhic Remission”