Ever since Of Montreal were unfortunate enough to release one of 2007’s most adored records, Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?, they have been condemned to have every note scrutinised and slapped up against the measuring stick of their former success. Which, of course, is a ridiculous way of looking at things; whether new album Paralytic Stalks is marginally worse or better than Hissing Fauna… in anyone’s skewed opinion is absolutely irrelevant. Paralytic Stalks is its own album, and is simultaneously frustrating, self-loathing, insecure, thrilling, deranged, and always completely honest.
That Paralytic Stalks begins with a cavernous homage to reverb which bears exactly no resemblance to the rest of the album is, in a very Of Montreal sort of way, the best way to prepare you for this schizophrenic album. Yet the effect is ironically satisfying for the most part; each idea is discarded almost before it has taken shape, making way for just another of Kevin Barnes’ wonderful delusions. As such, it’s impossible not to hang on their every note: even the softly meandering weak-point ‘Malefic Dowery’ has a certain tension because they really are likely to do anything, and more often than not, it’s brilliant.
Against this genuinely creative background, it really is surprising that Paralytic Stalks is hinged around passages of straightforward pop music, and yet still seems cohesive. In fact, it’s completely remarkable that a band that is as wilfully obtuse as Of Montreal can write songs as instantly appealing as ‘Spiteful Intervention’ and ‘Dour Intervention’, without sacrificing their insane songwriting methods. Elsewhere, extended pieces of anywhere between 5 and 13 minutes jump between soul-searching interludes and Barnes’ pop genius. Take the middle quarter of ‘We Will Commit Wolf Murder’ - the stuttering, blurred introduction stumbles into the clarity of Barnes’ stream-of-thought, and somehow a very insistent hook appears. And then the song descends into apocalyptic Crystal Castles-like vice. There’s absolutely no logic to it, and it shouldn’t work, but it’s just what Mr Barnes does.
Even if Paralytic Stalks wasn’t so musically brilliant, it would still be worth listening to simply because of Barnes’ lyrics and personality, of which this entire album is so obviously the result. So often, his biting, self-deprecating lyrics take precedence over the music, and they’re so fiercely honest and piercing that they really resonate, even if you don’t hate yourself like his lyrics claim he does. Lines like “I should be happy/But what I feel is corrupted and broken and impotent and insane” and “I envy you because you believe in things/Like I never could” illustrate how autobiographical the record is; it’s Barnes’ head cut open for the world to share in, with magnificent honesty and emotional involvement. Faced with such surprising candour, it’s tough not to become emotionally involved yourself.
And yet, for all their integrity, experimental brilliance and accessibility, Paralytic Stalks was never going to be a perfect record exactly because of those erratic quirks that make the album so good. The longer tracks towards the end of the album contain at least 10 great ideas, but occasionally each one is discarded so quickly that you’re left not even knowing what it is that you want more of, and the whole thing comes off sounding not as great as it could have been. Maybe our idea of what is “good” is just far too rigid to accommodate Barnes’ schizophrenic creativity, but we’re fairly sure that the actually frightening 8 minutes of ‘Exorcismic Breeding Knife’, which amounts to not much more than a malevolent hum, is a step too far.
But in a funny sort of way, imperfection is exactly what you want from an Of Montreal record. If every note was perfectly placed, every move logically planned, it would have none of the charisma that makes the record so good. If everything was so neat, then Barnes’ chest-baring honesty just wouldn’t feel real at all. So, as imperfect a musical masterpiece as it is, Paralytic Stalks is totally deserving of your commitment and concentration. Both despite and because of its complexity, it’s completely fascinating: not only for its eccentric musical brilliance, but as an insight into one of modern music’s most singular minds.
Listen to Paralytic Stalks