Taking in any Of Montreal record requires a certain degree of endurance and stamina on the part of the listener. Sure, more people would probably opt for a listening session of Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? over Dream Theater’s Images and Words, but Kevin Barnes’ technicolor potpourri of lascivious glam-pop and spastic psychedelia is still a confounding thing to behold. And that doesn’t even begin to address the frequency of his releases (nearly a dozen full-lengths in 15 years), the puzzling storylines (“When they experiment I will become your surrogate / I really can’t conceive of any balance in my future anyways / the coma is poisoned,” from last year’s False Priest LP), or the cumbersome song titles (“Faberge Falls For Shuggie,” “Chrissy Kiss the Corpse,” “Flunkt Sass Vs. the Root Plume”).
Even though the scant downtime between albums rarely yields the opportunity to induce pangs of longing, every Of Montreal record still somehow feels like an event, an impending holiday for exhibitionism. One can’t help but ponder just how Kevin Barnes, with his outsized personality and indefatigable creativity, can possibly makes this leviathan anymore freakish than he already has. It’s a shame, too, that the outré nature of Barnes’ ideas are often the focal point; beneath all of the idiosyncratic behavior resides some downright tuneful and addictive pop songwriting.
For his latest foray into the avant-garde, Barnes has ditched the prog-rock and R&B predilections of his last two releases, hired some studio guns, and made a deliberate return to the autobiographical material that transformed Hissing Fauna into such a harrowing treatise of introspection. The more recent Of Montreal albums have certainly come off as agitated and anxious, but the newfound lust for revenge and self-loathing that Barnes unearths on Paralytic Stalks takes the misanthropy to previously unimagined levels. How’s your endurance these days?
Once Paralytic Stalks is parsed, the songs generally fit into one of three categories. There are those that sound like quintessential Of Montreal, racing from jittery earnestness to histrionic camp in the blink of an eye (“Spiteful Intervention” and the ELO/Dire Straits-indebted “Dour Percentage”). There’s the nearly unlistenable portion, conveniently compartmentalized as a duo of closing tracks that never fully materialize after venturing into abrasive soundscapes (the Morton Feldman-meets-Sufjan Stevens terror of “Exorcismic Breeding Knife”) and industrial cacophony (“Authentic Pyrrhic Remission,” which sports both a Nine Inch Nails and Bernard Herrmann flair).
Then, there are the tracks that not only rescue Paralytic Stalks from becoming a milquetoast affair, but also serve as yet another formidable testament to Kevin Barnes’ enterprising spirit and multifarious faculties. We’ve got the Margaritaville mellowness of “Malefic Dowery,” which finds Barnes pairing gossamer flute melodies and strummy acoustic guitars with musings on romance (“Love is not a debtor’s prison / you don’t have to serve a sentence / to pay back what you’ve been given”). There’s also “Wintered Debts,” which manages to somehow find cohesion with chilly Arvo Pärt-esque orchestrations (arranged by session writer Zachary Colwell), a pedal-steel imbued country shuffle, and improvisations on par with Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. As the album’s most motley song, “Ye, Renew the Plaintiff” forms a stunning mélange of classical minimalism, off-kilter sampling, and extended psychedelic soloing that could’ve been copped from “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” At the track’s core are Barnes’ direct and increasingly beserk pleas to his wife, whom he addresses often throughout the record: “Oh, Nina / I’ve become so hateful / how am I ever going to survive this winter / I can think of nothing but getting my revenge.”
Paralytic Stalks is as manic and deranged as anything else that has come from the mind of Kevin Barnes, but this frenzy feels more warranted, as the fanciful doppelgangers and carnal fetishes of the past take a back seat to address the basic human fear of being swallowed by a world ravaged by violence. It’s still an unquestionably oblique listen by mainstream standards, but compared to Of Montreal’s previous offerings, Paralytic Stalks demonstrates an intimacy and immediacy which Barnes would do well to repeat.