of Montreal's Paralytic Stalks [Review]
Since Cherry Peel, of Montreal’s debut album, the boundless creativity of singer, songwriter, and composer Kevin Barnes has never been in doubt; But their 2007 outing, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, found the band outdoing themselves, both sonically and lyrically, and producing their most accomplished work to date. This elaborate concept album, filled with bright synthesizers, pulsing dance beats, and pop hooks to spare, was a far cry from the miniature character sketches of the early albums such as The Gay Parade and Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse; their days of Beatles-meet-Brian Wilson indie-pop tunes were gone for good.
Hissing Fauna was written during a time of crisis in Barnes’s life, and ever since, of Montreal has been what Barnes has called a therapeutic outlet for his depression, neuroses, and innermost secrets. The first half of the album contrasts troubled, personal lyrics with upbeat pop melodies, until Barnes transforms into his Ziggy-esque, glam-rock alter-ego Georgie Fruit, a self-proclaimed black she-male, the back half of the album propelled by funky guitars and disco beats. Barnes gave himself completely over to the Georgie Fruit persona on Hissing Fauna’s fun-loving dance party companion, 2008’s Skeletal Lamping. He ultimately returned to his own body on 2010’s False Priest, which introduced classic rock and R&B into the mix, along with a more obscure lyrical style.
On February 7th, Barnes is set to unleash of Montreal’s latest offering, Paralytic Stalks, which he wrote, produced, and recorded in his home studio, accompanied by an assortment of session musicians, including wind player Zac Colwell, a welcome addition. Without a doubt, this is one of Barnes’s most experimental and eclectic releases. Opener “Gelid Ascent” has echoes of Pink Floyd, while in the following two tracks, of Montreal’s signature funky pop is augmented by lightly processed piano and electronic washes. The flute melodies on “Dour Percentage” are a nice touch.
The final four of the nine tracks comprise 37 minutes of the album’s 58 minute run time, and showcase Barnes’s through-composing approach to song-craft. “Wintered Debts” transitions seamlessly between Elliot Smith, a pseudo-country shuffle complete with slide guitar lines, a more aggressive form of the traditional of Montreal sound, and a dissonant, quasi-avant-garde section featuring strings. For once, Barnes seems to be focusing just as much on atmosphere as on melody, as “Exorcismic Breeding Knife,” a song that fans will either love or hate, can attest to.
Lyrically, this album is Barnes’s most personal work since Hissing Fauna, and easily his darkest ever; particularly memorable images include “blood in my hair,” “slipping on my own vomit,” and “the carcass of my failures.” These often cynical and bitter lyrics are accompanied by a more aggressive delivery than we have come to expect; Barnes pushes his voice to its limit on “Spiteful Intervention” and “Wintered Debts.” While casual listeners to Hissing Fauna might miss out on the singer’s emotional turmoil because of the upbeat nature of the music, the harshness of the lyrics and a good deal of the singing on Paralytic Stalks calls attention to the grimness that pervades the album.
If Paralytic Stalks proves anything about of Montreal, it is that Kevin Barnes is far from running out of ideas. Just as fans of the band during their early Elephant 6 days never could have predicted the transformation that began with Satanic Panic in the Attic, listeners should relish the notion that within a few years, of Montreal will have radically metamorphosed yet again. For now, listeners who have enjoyed the band’s last few albums should give Paralytic Stalks a spin; I doubt they will be disappointed. nth