of Montreal – Paralytic Stalks (Polyvinyl)
By Scott Creney
As big a departure from his previous work as 2004’s Satanic Panic In The Attic was to everything that came before that album, Paralytic Stalks is so unexpected, such a creative leap forward from of Montreal’s last couple of albums, that their audience may not be ready for it. In places, it’s incredibly, jaw-droppingly stunning. It’s schizophrenic in all the best ways, turning emotional indecision into an art form.
It’s wrapped in a disco/funk mix that keeps deteriorating (or ascending) into sheets of noise and emotional breakdowns. It’s Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy meets ‘Revolution 9’, and it’s the best thing of Montreal has ever done. The album where Kevin Barnes fulfills every artistic promise he has ever made. Each time I listen to the album it gets better and better.
For those of us who found Barnes’recent R&B excursions uselessly tongue-in-cheek (or tongue-in-chic if you prefer), more Midnight Vultures than anything else, Paralytic Stalks is an unexpected revelation. It sounds like all that Georgie Fruit stuff drove Barnes crazy. Every time echoes of the old sound pops up on Paralytic Stalks, it is quickly subsumed by lyrical and sonic psychosis, and the results are unbelievably compelling. A glorious type of self-subversion that is perfectly natural given the album’s themes of self-loathing and inability to find satisfaction in one’s surroundings. The album exists in an emotional and sonic avant-garde, but one that is desperate to communicate.
The R&B turns feel more half-hearted than ever, and they’re the only blight on the album. Oddly, Barnes is at his catchiest, his most compelling, when he avoids the big obvious pop turns, the synthetic strings, and just lowers his head and rants his way through the spiraling messes of sound. In these places — the last two minutes of ‘We Will Commit Wolf Murder’ for example, the middle part of ‘Ye, Renew The Plaintiff’ for another — he creates a type of music that is as original and moving as anything we’ll hear all year.
“This world embarrasses me like a retarded cartoon,” sings Barnes. It’s his Sister Lovers, his The Painted Word. It’s an album to make you weep if you listen closely enough, make you flinch if you don’t, and make you do both if you’re even halfway alive. It’s by some distance the most emotionally raw, most psychedelic, most inspired album of a long career. “I can’t function unless I’m the only one awake,” is a line worthy of Elvis Costello, as damning a portrait of a relationship as anyone has ever written. As brutally self-damning as This Year’s Model as cunningly witty as Stephen Merritt, and as raw as anything. “It’s fucking sad that we need a tragedy to occur to gain a fresh perspective in our lives.”
It’s a concept album about the fall of decadence, the inability to live any longer wrapped within one’s bullshit, the sound of someone pulling back the curtain on their personal Satyricon and recoiling in disgust. It’s a hastily scrawled note by a prisoner encased in his own psychological stockade. It’s a weary fever dream of unraveled exhaustion. The sound of someone dead inside struggling to feel alive, and, at the same time, the sound of someone so bursting with emotion they wish they could turn themselves off. Paralytic Stalks inverts itself on these axes so many times it’s hard to listen and not feel slightly nauseous, to cringe.
Each song spirals in on the other in a maddening loop, a fuck-you/fuck-me cycle until the last song, ‘Authentic Pyrrhic Remissions’ breaks the spell.
It’s 13 minutes long. The first three minutes continues the dramatic push/pull, love/hate, cling/escape themes of the album before building to the stark and defeated admission, “Every time I listen to my heart, I just get hurt”. At which point, the album veers out on a seven-minute mind-blowing sonic journey before dissolving into a stately piano. For someone who’s been taking his clothes off in concerts for the last five years, this is the most naked — musically and emotionally, Barnes has been since his first album.
The song resolves with Barnes sounding at peace, with himself, his love and his surroundings. The last line, “Our illumination is complete” is the most relaxed moment on the album. Whether Barnes has found transcendence, or merely a truce, is open to interpretation. Arriving after 55 minutes of white-knuckle borderline psychosis, if it’s meant to be a happy ending, it’s one of the more unsettling happy endings I’ve heard.
As someone who’s written some shitty things about of Montreal, I feel I have an obligation to be clear. Paralytic Stalks draws a line in the sand behind Kevin Barnes and his past. He’s liable to go anywhere from here. It’s the most forward-looking album of his life. Of Montreal began their career looking backwards, have spent the last few years trying to be current, and are now moving slippily into the future. It’s the best thing, by some distance, they’ve ever done, and you may not hear a better album by anyone until the next of Montreal album arrives.
Quite simply, you need to hear this.