of Montreal Gets Personal and Experimental on Latest Release

of Montreal -- Paralytic Stalks -- Polyvinyl -- 4 STARS

of Montreal has never shied away from the weird, abstruse, and generally unconventional. Past live performances have featured absurdist gems like Academy Award winner Susan Sarandon spanking men dressed as pigs, and the band’s lyrics, titles, and artwork all fall somewhere between the silly and the grotesque. Given how veiled and showy of Montreal has been in years past, it is thus surprising that “Paralytic Stalks,” the band’s newest album, is largely characterized by a genuine vulnerability Front man Kevin Barnes’s emotional sincerity adds a fiery depth that was not present in much of their past work. “Paralytic Stalks” is driven by this depth and reaffirms of Montreal’s creative genius while providing a glimpse into Barnes’s beautiful, troubled soul.

On this album, Kevin Barnes takes back center stage from his alter-ego Georgie Fruit, who dominated their last few releases. Fruit—a black, middle-aged, former funk musician who has undergone multiple sex change operations—brought a flamboyance to of Montreal’s music. Now Barnes’s own depression and personal problems are at the forefront. Poignant themes of frustration, loneliness, and violence run rampant throughout the lyrics with lines like, “Now I’m considered ugly from every angle / You’re the only beauty I don’t want to strangle / Can’t you hear me crying out for guidance?” Though Barnes is no longer writing the epic, surreal lyrics of his past successes, his poetic viruosity still shines through in lines like “Can’t seem to get my saddle on the spoils of this morbid fugue.” Georgie Fruit may not be inspiring him anymore, but Barnes remains a superb lyricist.

Thankfully, the actually music on “Paralytic Stalks” is not nearly as morose as the lyrics would suggest. The gloomy lyrical themes are tempered by robust, rollicking melodies coupled with energetic funk beats. Bleak sentiments and paranoia envelop the lyrics of tracks like “Spiteful Intervention” and “Dour Percentage,” yet judging only from the instrumentation and the smooth, lighthearted quality of Barnes’s voice, the song could just as well have been about butterflies and birthday cake.

There are moments where Barnes’s sentiments are conveyed more completely, as the charged emotion of the lyrics cross over into the music and vocal quality. When Barnes sings, “What I feel is corrupted, broken, impotent and insane” in “Ye, Renew the Plaintiff,” the coarser tone in Barnes’s voice channels and augments the insistent desperation of the lyrics. The same effect is achieved in “Gelid Ascent” through distortion, an eerie synthesizer, and harsh industrial sounds.

This new sound is an element the band’s constant evolution. When of Montreal first appeared on the scene 15 years ago, their music was full of retro-pop naivety, but in the years since, the band has incorporated psychedelic rock, folk, funk and R&B. “Paralytic Stalks” displays post-punk tendencies in “Gelid Ascent,” country twang in parts of “Wintered Debt,” industrial severity in the intro of “Authentic Pyrrhic Remission,” and funky bass and drum rhythms in almost all of the tracks. Toward the latter half of the album, Barnes enthusiastically reveals experimental influences. “Authentic Pyrrhic Remission,” “Wintered Debts,” and “Exorcismic Breeding Knife,” include long portions of dissonant instrumental jamming. Flutes, violins, synthesizers, bells, and chanting and humming fade in and out in a curious menagerie.

Such a complete shift from popular music to avant-garde is quite a shock. The contrast between cacophonous instrumentation and engaging melodies create a vexing friction, and the transitions are sometimes jarring. These experimental sections are often bloated and excessive, particularly in the 13-minute-long final track “Authentic Pyrrhic Remission.”

However, there are some brief moments when these abstract sections perfectly complement the album’s catchy melodies and show the potential of a new genre based on bizzare stylistic fusions. Given that “Paralytic Stalks” is of Montreal’s 11th release, it it is a relief to still see Barnes trying his hardest to stay inventive and relevant. “Paralytic Stalks” has tedious moments, but its charming, melodic lines and its raw, expressive tone on the whole make for a resounding triumph.

—Staff writer Rebecca J. Mazur can be reached at bmazur@college.harvard.edu.

Tags