Another year, another of Montreal record. Technically speaking Kevin Barnes puts out a new full length album every two or so years, but there’s usually an EP or a collection of remixes or something that gets releaed in between. For example the last of Montreal album was 2010’s False Priest, but in 2011 it was thecontrollersphere EP. In total there have been 11 long players released under the of Montreal name since 1997, including this year’s Paralytic Stalks. There’s been a steady evolution in the sound of each record too, even if it hasn’t always been for the better. 2008’s Skeletal Lamping largely ruined the momentum built up by the critically praised Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer, as it was a mess of an unfocused record filled with ADHD-type songs. Just as a song would be reaching its stride and burrowing its way into your memory banks, it’d take a sharp left turn and send you someplace entirely different. More often than not you’d get about 3 separate thoughts spread across a singular 4 minute track, making it a rather difficult listen on the whole. That’s not even mentioning the fact that Barnes invented an alter-ego called Georgie Fruit who was a sex fiend and a disco queen with a falsetto voice. At least False Priest was built on the rock solid foundations of wanting to craft an R&B record with funk/psych-pop vibes. Packed with guest stars like Janelle Monae and Solange Knowles, the concept was interesting but the execution was much less so. You can’t really fault the guy for wanting to experiment, but most recently he seems to have reached some creative stumbling blocks.
Now we’re faced with the monumental task that is Paralytic Stalks, a record that foregoes any guest stars and alter-egos in favor of a return to some of the more core odd pop elements that earned of Montreal praise in the first place. Kevin Barnes would object to the idea that he’s backpedaling at all, even as he claims that his songwriting style has become far more personal again, akin to what it was on Hissing Fauna…. Believe what you will about the guy’s lyrics, but it’s a small challenge to pinpoint a time when he wasn’t being coy and metaphorical about things, his colorful palette of words functioning closer to a locked door than an open window. If anyone wants to explain what the lines, “You speak to me/like the anguish of a child doused in flames” are hinting at on opening track “Gelid Ascent”, it might go a long way towards proving those personal ideas. Still, there are a few moments where Barnes mentions his wife Nina by name, as when he pointedly asks, “Oh Nina, how can I defend myself against the world that batters me like a retarded cartoon” on “Ye, Renew the Plaintiff”. That at least tells you he’s speaking from the heart. Most of the time though we’re left with a puzzle, and a line from “We Will Commit Wolf Murder” probably says it best: “I’ve tried to understand his logic, but there’s just no pattern there/no sympathetic voices anywhere”. As confusing as many of the lyrics can be, their actual themes make solid sense. This is a violent and dark record, filled with thoughts of revenge, emotional breakdowns and infidelity. Not the most pleasant of subjects, but at least these are things that mean something to the man writing about them. If you can relate to his sentiments, so much the better. It should be obvious, but you’re not going to walk away from this record with a smile on your face.
From a purely sonic perspective, you could say that Paralytic Stalks is one of the more fascinating of Montreal albums to date. Spanning 9 tracks and a runtime of almost an hour, there’s an easily recognizable divide after the midpoint “Malefic Dowery” where 3-4 minute songs suddenly become 7-8 minute ones before the grand 13 minute finale hits. Ironically that’s also the point where the record starts to go awry, even though most of the nearly 9 minutes of “Ye, Renew the Plaintiff” aren’t bad by any means. The front half of the album is positively delightful on the ears in spite of its lyrical unpleasantness and unfocused tendencies. Single “Dour Percentage” is absolutely the best moment, channeling his most soulful pop side complete with some horns and flutes for accompaniment. What it lacks is a truly dynamic hook. The chorus is good but not quite good enough to stick with you. Almost equally compelling but far less pop-driven is “Malefic Dowery”, which has the distinct honor of being one of the most un-of Montreal songs in of Montreal’s catalogue. It’s beautiful, lush, straightforward and gets by on mostly acoustic guitar, piano and flute – all instruments you don’t really think of when talking about of Montreal. If Barnes had chosen to craft an entire record based around the elements of that song, it might have been exactly what he needed to make that next leap creatively. Instead, the album slowly descends into madness. Key to this collapse is the penultimate track “Exorcismic Breeding Knife”, an atonal psychedelic bad trip that entirely lacks any sort of shape. Its nearly 8 minutes amount to a series of noises, drones and sound effects, all atmospherically akin to a truly bad drug trip. The walls are quickly closing in, the floor is melting, and there’s a clown in the corner with a knife and a menacing look on his face. Those visuals are pretty much the auditory equivalent of what goes on in that track, and thinking about it further, there’s also a remarkable similarity to The Beatles track “Revolution 9”. The equally lengthy “Wintered Debts” and the doubly long closer “Authentic Pyrrhic Remission” both at least have some looser, more pop-driven moments to offset the stranger and more detached moments. That doesn’t make them much easier to sit through, but at least they feel more upbeat and logically constructed.
A careful listen to Paralytic Stalks would seem to indicate that Kevin Barnes has very much lost his mind. That may very well be the case, or at least he’s allowed his eccentricities to take control for a bit. Those peculiar flights of fancy are almost certain to alienate a fair amount of the of Montreal fan base currently in place, undoubtedly hoping for something brighter and poppier more akin to the Satanic Panic in the Attic era. A few might find it inspiring though, a very forward-thinking take on 20th century orchestral movements. That seems to be what Barnes was going for, the actual success of it dependent at least in part on your own peculiar musical tastes. You’ve got to admire the guy, at least for a moment, for the sheer audacity it took to put together a record like this. Very few artists with of Montreal’s level of popularity would even dream of doing something so obtuse and uncommercial. Barnes’s dignity may be entirely intact, though his mental facilities may not be. Let’s hope this is a phase he’s working through, or a stepping stone towards a record that will define his legacy. It’d be such a shame if it were anything else.