Kevin Barnes’ tumultuous music hasn’t always been the easiest to follow, so it’s probably a great benefit that he’s nearly always at hand to carefully explain each release and the ideas behind it. Had it not been pointed out to them, I imagine many listeners would have remained oblivious to the fact that Barnes’ Georgie Fruit persona was emerging half way through Hissing Fauna masterpiece “The Past Is A Grotesque Animal.” With some of his releases, though, such as Coquelicot Asleep In The Poppies or Skeletal Lamping, an explanation of what was going on didn’t really help the music make much more sense, and it was easier to just enjoy the odd, and sometimes jarring madness.
But what has always been an engaging feature of of Montreal’s music is Kevin Barnes’ display of real emotion, which is what makes Hissing Fauna so impressionable and lasting, as we hear Barnes narrate his breakdown and its outcome. One of the reasons the subsequent releases to it fell flat – or didn’t impress listeners as much – is that they never had a similar force behind them: Skeletal Lamping was too busy exploring sexual escapades to give any proper and thoughtful attention to Barnes’ emotional state, while False Priest was often too busy doing nothing, struggling to find a narrative of any kind to latch onto. With their latest album, Paralytic Stalks, Barnes once again makes his emotional state of mind the point of focus, generating tag-lines such as Barnes’ “most personal recording to date.”
Such descriptions are not too far flung from the truth; Paralytic Stalks has numerous moments where Barnes sounds like he’s about to or literally is losing it in the studio. The delivery of each chorus on “Spiteful Intervention” varies slightly, as Barnes’ voice teeters on breaking into some sort of delirium, while on “Wintered Debts” he’s hushed against a microphone, like he’s talking to himself in a dark room. But it’s on the album centrepiece “Ye, Renew the Plaintiff,” that the peak of all these emotions appears: he screams of wanting to dish out revenge, but how not being able to do so is “eating a hole” inside him. If you were ready to (or already have) dismissed Barnes as superficial, then it’s a song like this that’ll draw you back in, and make you realize that beneath all that mad alter ego stuff, Barnes is still a deeply conflicted and emotional guy, unafraid of displaying his extreme thoughts and feelings.
While these vocal performances may well be one of the main selling points of Paralytic Stalks, it thankfully isn’t the only one. Musically, Barnes is still creating songs that fuse together various ideas, but on this album they flow much better and, at the best of times, the end result sounds near enough dynamic. It’s amazing how swiftly “Spiteful Intervention” goes from brief moments of seemingly aimless babbling to an infectious and affecting chorus; and more amazing still is how it all sounds unified and necessary. At near enough nine minutes, “Ye, Renew the Plaintiff,” moves about plenty, but it feels like its own self-contained drama: starting off on some spiky and classic of Montreal guitar riffage, that aforementioned emotional peak appears and leads into a deserved psychedelic guitar solo before Barnes lowers the paces trying to explain the reason he’s so messed up (“I’ve inherited spiritual sanctions for some old ancestral crime”). It’s “Dour Percentage” that shines wonderfully, though, with its glimmering ABBA-esque verses, unobtrusive brass section, and soaring coda where all the instruments (including stuttering guitars and flutes) come together to sing out the track. In terms of structure, it’s the only conventional “song” here, and that’s the reason it flows so seamlessly, never trailing off and returning to the song’s strengths over and over. It’s evidence that, when he wants to, Barnes can still write a great pop song to call his own.
Unfortunately these highlights are located on the first half of the album, and as “Wintered Debts” trails off into seemingly endless piano rippling half way through the song, it marks the starts of an elongated, self-indulgent and distinctly less appealing second half. “Exorcismic Breeding Knife” sounds like a dozen (mainly horror) film soundtracks aimlessly bleeding into one another, and while it might give the listener an idea of what the inside of Barnes’ head sounds like, it’s easy to deem pointless and, if it weren’t so harsh sounding, even innocuous. Closing song “Authentic Pyrrhic Remission” actually recalls False Priest closer “You Do Mutilate?” with its clunky piano chords and sassy vocal performance, but at 13 minutes is nearly twice the length. And unfortunately the majority of the song, like “Wintered Debts,” is spent going off of an instrumental tangent.
Another one of the downfalls is regarding the point I began with, in that it can be hard to follow Barnes’ trail of thought. When you’re able to latch onto what he’s singing about, like on “Ye, Renew the Plaintiff,” acoustic ditty “Malefic Dowery,” or the choruses of the better songs mentioned above, it can help make the song more involving, as there’s often the emotional pull to go with the musical hook. But, for a good proportion of the album, Barnes is trying to say too much for his songs, warbling away to himself, making the links between sections harder to follow. Much like he sings on “We Will Commit Wolf Murder,” “I tried to understand his logic / but there’s just no pattern there.”
At its best moments then, Paralytic Stalks can feel like of Montreal are once again a force to be reckoned with, and an album as emotionally involved as this may just have saved Barnes from being dismissed as someone playing out his decline. Instead it sounds like Barnes is once again working on an uphill struggle and even though it sounds like its taking a lot out of him – and even if there isn’t a greater high to be reached – Barnes has definitely taken a step in right direction. Let’s just hope it becomes a little easier to follow him and his music.