How do you approach an album as tantalizingly complex as Paralytic Stalks?
You could begin from a lyrical perspective and appraise the occasion it provides for an unobstructed view directly into the psyche of Kevin Barnes, of Montreal's principal songwriter.
But be prepared -- one listen to "I spend my waking hours haunting my own life / I made the one I love start crying tonight / And it felt good" ("Spiteful Intervention") immediately reveals this is not Barnes filtered through the lens of an adopted persona or invented alter ego.
Rather, these are confessions of an infinitely more personal nature than anything he's written since 2007's Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?
Amidst dark ruminations on human existence, revenge, self-hatred, and his relationship with wife Nina, one encounters an emotionally raw Barnes struggling to contain his savage thoughts: "So much violence in my head / How are we still alive?" ("Authentic Pyrrhic Remission").
And though it's easy to become totally immersed within the captivating power of these revelations song after song, focusing only on the lyrics would prevent you from fully comprehending the true depth of Barnes's work.
Because in a different, yet equally enthralling manner, Paralytic Stalks's musical dimension proves itself similarly worthy of preoccupation.
For on a sonic level, the album -- recorded at Barnes's home studio in Athens, GA and mixed at Chase Park Transduction with the assistance of engineer Drew Vandenberg (Deerhunter, Toro y Moi) -- is a stimulating array of densely packed ideas presented with stunning agility.
Never before has an of Montreal record moved so fluidly from one song to the next -- each track feeding off the last in what seems a singular album-long movement that never allows you to rip your ears away.
After the addition of classically trained violinist Kishi Bashi to of Montreal's touring line-up, Barnes embraced the idea of working with session musicians (many of whom were Kishi Bashi's friends) for the first time in his career. During this period, Barnes forged a special connection with Zachary Cowell, a session musician who subsequently arranged all of the
album's brass and woodwind parts (and is now the band's newest member).
The experience also emboldened Barnes to venture into previously unexplored territory with his songwriting. As a result, Paralytic Stalks at times resembles modern classical with its intricate compositions, while at others echoes of neo-prog, pseudo-country, and 60s pop can be heard.
Examples of these new elements abound throughout the record, notably on "Wintered Debts," which witnesses its hushed vocal and acoustic guitar intro giving way to a country shuffle replete with pedal steel guitar, as well as the flute-driven, ELO-inspired single "Dour Percentage." And yet, above all, Paralytic Stalks remains absolutely defiant of any labels that attempt to completely pin down the type of music Barnes creates.
As such, ultimately it doesn't matter what angle you choose as your entry point. Because the album's true value is that it even forces you to question how to approach it at all.
Conceived on the fringe of a musical landscape that seldom encourages listeners to dig beyond the surface level to receive satisfaction, Paralytic Stalks is the rare album with the audacity to DEMAND such a response.
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