It's impossible to investigate Paralytic Stalks, Of Montreal's obtuse 11th album, without looking at the band's pinnacle: 2007's Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? That record broke out in multicolored bursts of intensely catchy pop songs that skittered frantically from disco beats to 12-minute Krautrock-rhythmed vamps, all backdropping Kevin Barnes' high-pitched tales of chemical imbalance and mental breakdown. Even from the band's earlier days of bedroom twee, Of Montreal had been doing a slightly different morph of Barnes' audacious pop personality since the very beginning. Hissing Fauna, however, was the first time any of these weird angles worked in a way that a wider audience could connect with. That perfect storm has been difficult to re-create in subsequent albums. Released in 2008, Skeletal Lamping was a confused mess of a concept album, and 2010's False Priest found Barnes shooting for a modern R&B take on psychedelic pop, complete with cameos by bona fide soul divas Solange Knowles and Janelle Monáe. On Paralytic Stalks, Of Montreal approach almost prog levels of splintered psych-pop composition. Lead-off single "Dour Percentage" is the most crystallized moment of the swirling components that run more amok on the rest of the album. Understated woodwinds and translucent Mellotron hooks wrap around funky pop choruses. The Bowie worship that began on False Priest escalates here, and the reference point actually works nicely to ground some of Barnes' psycho-sci-fi concept lyrics. The midnight funk guitar stabs of "Ye, Renew the Plaintiff" meld a "Fame"-era Bowie influence with blown-out glitchy beats. This album also marks the first time Barnes has brought in session musicians to augment their usually isolated, meticulous studio creations. This is a strange dichotomy, in that Paralytic Stalks is lyrically the most personally naked Of Montreal record to date. The band have been growing more confessional since Hissing Fauna, but themes of revenge, bitterness, and absolute emotional bankruptcy repeat like a one-sided conversation throughout the record. It's disquieting how genuinely messed up the characters in Barnes' songs come across at times. The bipolarity of the lyrics spills over into the music in the more unhinged moments of the album. "Exorcism Breeding Knife" sprawls into musique concrète territory with tape manipulation and a collision of industrial and classical instrumentation scoring Barnes' multi-tracked mutterings. Album closer "Authentic Pyrrhic Remission" goes on twice as long, a rambling song cycle of distorted electro art pop, eventually melting into discordant strings and then a brief piano rumination. The album ends feeling unfinished, or more like Barnes has just thrown out a million beginnings, purposefully omitting all resolution. In the end, Paralytic Stalks is simply the next logical step in Of Montreal's evolution. As Barnes' shattered look at pop music becomes as complex as their look at the human psyche, their songs become more fragmented and drift further away from anything resembling traditional forms. Of Montreal grow less accessible with Paralytic Stalks, but it's respectable how unconcerned Barnes seems with anything besides staying true to a freakily fractured vision.
Paralytic Stalks Review
by Fred Thomas