ask serif;”>Released this year with the usual slew of verbosely titled tracks, health no rx serif;”>Paralytic Stalks marks -I was shocked to realize- the 11th studio album from American indie/pop outfit of Montreal. A project that has become an ever increasingly idiosyncratic affair from Kevin Barnes, this offering was not only written and recorded exclusively by the band’s leader and frontman but also produced by him in his own Sunlandic Studios. What of Montreal requires in their fans, more so than most bands, is a devotion to Barnes as an artist. Each album is treated as a real cohesive project, often in the form of fully blown concept albums, and they tend to be highly (if obliquely) autobiographical. The band are completely tailored to a cult status, with casual listeners likely to be left with the nagging feeling that they are not getting everything they could out of Montreal, or worse, feeling slightly cold by the experience. Which is a something of a paradox, because the warm richness of the songs, whether you buy into whatever wordy concept is being laid down on record, is one thing that is guaranteed with the band.
Barnes, while perhaps occasionally artistically inscrutable, is undoubtedly one of the finest melodists of the genre. The 2007 album Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer (I did mention they were verbose) was undoubtedly the most accessible and endearing thing released by the Athens band, and remains the point when of Montreal could have become a genuinely big main stream success.
Instead the poppy hooks of that record gave way to more experimentalism with funk and deeply conceptual narrative albums. Paralytic Stalks then, fits in nicely with its predecessors; sounding variously wonderfully lush, wordy to the point of amusement, stylistically erratic and somewhat dense. Barnes’ annunciated falsetto is in as fine form as ever, sounding sugary sweet in parts (Malefic Dowery) while giving way to a Black Francis style freak out in others (Ye, Renew the Plaintiff). Dour Percentage, the lead single, is as beautiful sounding a song as you will hear, and operates as an almost irritatingly careless reminder from Barnes of his ability to write wonderfully infectious and joyful tunes. For all the ethereal flutes of that song though, there is always going to be the more impenetrable side of Barnes’ songwriting; epitomized by the 8 minutes of ominous violins and electronic drones that make up Exorcismic Breeding Knife.
Indeed, the album’s only real crime is in parts falling the wrong side of the line between enigmatic and irritating. That probably won’t matter to the die-hard fans though, for who the pay-off is in the enigma itself. The possibility of another truly great album remains tangible, simply in the fact that when it’s good, it’s really good. It certainly deserves to be listened to. As Barnes says in in his own brand of baroque vernacular on the uncharacteristically stripped back, but eminently pretty Malefic Dowery: “I live in fear of your schizophrenic genius. It’s a tempestuous despot that I can’t seem to propitiate.” What he means here is that he recognizes his own talent but that harnessing it is where the challenge is. Instead it dominates him, pushes him in his own opaque artistic directions, and that he feels constantly on the verge of something truly great. I think that’s what he means anyway. Possibly.
By Ciaran Breslin