Rating: 4/5On “Spiteful Intervention,” the second track of his band’s latest release, Of Montreal front man Kevin Barnes prostates himself, shedding the protective shells of alter egos and artistic diffidence to lie upon an altar, soft belly up. Voice breaking, he takes a malevolent pride in hurting his wife before concluding, “Lately all I can produce is psychotic vitriol/ That really should fill me with guilt/ But all I have is asthmatic energy.” Paralytic Stalks is that psychotic vitriol, spitting and frothing for nearly an hour. From a band that consistently pushes its own limits, Paralytic Stalks continues to explore the breadth of Barnes’ imaginings, much to our delight.
Of Montreal songs are seldom linear, purposely obtuse and damn catchy despite it all. Still, somewhere along the way, the songs on Paralytic Stalks were shattered and rebuilt into a nine-track mosaic. The cracks show through, but it’s ultimately a unified piece with each song flowing into the next and some songs taking unexpected left turns. Something echoes unintelligibly. Something cuts out and back in unexpectedly. There are wind instruments! True, since hiring violinist Kishi Bashi, Of Montreal have been toying with classically trained session musicians; the apparent chasm between Bach and psychedelic pop is transcended by the disjointed nature of Barnes’ compositions throughout. The best example is on “Ye, Renew the Plaintiff,” where saxophones and flutes seamlessly overtake the guitars and synths that begin the song. Barnes bounces from Prince to a windswept instrumental break that subtly switches in a blippy flute line for the synths as Barnes flips from accusations against his wife Nina to thorough self-examination. Despite the track break, this flows seamlessly into the sorrowful late-Beatles sounds of “Wintered Debts.”
“Love is not a debtors’ prison/ You don’t have to serve a sentence to pay back what you’re given,” he sings on the andante “Malefic Dowery.” The mild guitar and flute accent the toxic lyrics. “I fear you’re provoking me with your fidelity,” he accuses, blurring the lines between love and hate, selfish and selfless. Barnes easily pens eight-minute sagas on self-reflection; in this case, a handful of precisely chosen wallops are delivered in less than three minutes. It’s dense and all the more scathing for it.
Throughout the album, we are trapped inside Kevin Barnes’ stream of consciousness—and even, perhaps, his unconscious on the nightmarish “Exorcismic Breeding Knife”—as he darts among the many folds of anger, sadness, pride, regret, frustration and disappointment. Closing song “Authentic Pyrrhic Remission” returns to something like a love song at its outset, with Barnes thanking Nina for her support over the years before it becomes an atonal series of shrieks and cackling laughs and, eventually, a tragic, piano-led ballad about belonging.
Album after album, song after song, Of Montreal prove themselves yogic masters of music. Paralytic Stalks astounds not only with its precision, a trait to be expected at this point, but with the complexity of its portrait of a deeply flawed and eternally conflicted man. We see much more of the enigmatic Barnes than we’ve glimpsed since, perhaps, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? The album is all the more compelling because of it.