“There are moments of my records that I’m proud of, but I don’t think I’ve made a great record. I guess that gives me something to live for.” That’s the entire response Of Montreal frontman Kevin Barnes gave to the Pitchfork question, “What’s the record thus far in your career that you’re most proud of?” Finally an honest answer to a generic question. That’s essentially how I’ve felt about their Polyvinyl releases of the past five years, with the exception of the virtually inaccessible Skeletal Lamping.
Barnes’ creative personalities are nearly as diverse and schizophrenic as his seemingly infinite wardrobe. One minute he’s strutting around in a pink tutu, the next he’s dawning an all-white magician’s outfit. Just some of the more tame chicanery I witnessed last year at the legendary 40 Watt Club; which felt more like an occult worship of Bootsy Collins and Michael Jackson’s long lost lovechild than a mere album launch party.
The real question that needs to be asked and answered at some point is whether these grandiose, largely solo, neo-prog machinations can be focused in order fill out an entire album, not just fragments of it. 2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? came damn near close due in large part to its emotionally charged lyrics and pop funk hooks that never left you hanging around too long.
Diverting from his trademark DIY ethos, Barnes actually hired studio musicians and proven engineer Drew Vandenberg (Deerhunter, Best Coast) to help him produce Paralytic Stalks, a much more personal record than the avant-garde hubris we’ve come to expect from him. New woodwind virtuoso Zac Colwell and now full-time strings player K Ishibashi push the music away from complex midi arpeggios to an at times overwhelmingly orchestral sound.
A prime example is exquisitely titled “Exorcismic Breeding Knife.” It’s so vast and roaming, not too mention downright psychotic, that you begin to wonder how it ever came to fruition at all. Post-modern composers like Phillip Glass and Krzysztof Penderecki (who Barnes cited as an influence on this album) would likely revel in its esoterics for months on end until they woke up in a padded room. It’s a marvelous Rube Goldberg machine that churns out confusion at an alarming rate. I admire the mechanics and production, not the end product.
“Authentic Pyrrhic Remission” is another lugubrious opus suffering from the same over-indulgences. After the opening third of the song establishes a systematic unravelling of characteristic vocal over-overdubs, choral fizzures and nursery rhyme antics we hit what sounds like a logical end by the fourth minute. But then the open-fifths begin flurrying about and Barnes exclaims to the highest synthesized octave “Every time I listen to my heart/ I just get hurt”; a not-so memorable send-off into a rabbit’s hole blackened and hollowed down to hell itself. Fortunately, the patience of a tortoise is rewarded at the bottom of this mad seven minute race to insanity. With lyrics as strong as they are soft, “Til this afternoon I was a nomad/No country would call me its son/I’d be a refugee but I have no substance”, accompanied by heavenly piano, it just doesn’t get much better than that. Isn’t this musical moment amplified by the aural torture you just endured? Was it worth it? I’d ultimately say yes, but amidst a daily surplus of instant gratification, I doubt it will carry its full intended weight let alone see the light of day.
“Malefic Dowery” is a gleaming twee pop gem in the middle of a tumultuous sea. It’s amazing how incredibly tight they sound, especially laced with Ishibashi’s ethereal string arrangements. Early teaser track, “Wintered Debts”, begins with an instantly apparent Eliot Smith vulnerability exacerbated by lines like “Slipping on my own vomit/While I tried to call you from my bathroom in Sao Paulo.” If you enjoyed “A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger” as much as I did then you will certainly recognize the whimsical melody, arranged slightly different of course, at the beginning of “Dour Percentage.”
Once again, Barnes gives us crystallizing glimpses of raw emotion he normally smothers with superfluous noise. Taken in context, this album may be his best work yet. Take it out, you might as well be blind to what you’re staring right at.