Paralytic Stalks holds the distinction of being both the weirdest and best Of Montreal record since 2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? The comparison is inevitable. The band’s previous three releases (two full-lengths and an EP) each draw their titles from Hissing Fauna lyrics, and front man Kevin Barnes cites thematic connections across the four projects. It’s worth mentioning that, in that sense at least, Stalks is the first record to fully emerge from Fauna’s shadow. But Fauna is also the band’s best record, so music geek etiquette of course requires us to point out how each subsequent album fails to live up to it. Stalks doesn’t quite reach the thematically cohesive, endlessly re-listenable peak of Fauna, but it’s a fascinating and worthwhile record in its own right.
What’s perhaps most immediately striking is the sequencing of the record’s nine songs, opening with five tracks of standard pop length and closing with four more which clock in at seven-plus minutes. The result is an accessible first half which gradually gives way to the expansive and challenging closing songs. ‘Accessible’ is a relative term here, however. ‘Spiteful Intervention’ sounds catchy and upbeat, but lyrically Barnes takes the listener to some dark and desperate places. “I spend my waking hours haunting my whole life / I made the one I love start crying tonight / And it felt good” goes the chorus. False Priest, with its heavy R&B and funk influences (as well as mildly ridiculous song titles like ‘Godly Intersex’), felt like Of Montreal heading into the territory of Prince in more than a few ways. Paralytic Stalks, on the other hand, seems to deliberately avoid sounding sexy or romantic. The lyrics veer from the direct (the alternately cheery sounding and brutal ‘Wintered Debts’) to the bizarrely abstract (‘Gelid Ascent,’ ‘Malefic Dowery’), but the entire record maintains a sense of darkness and anxiety that’s both engaging and a bit frightening.
The dichotomy between the literal and the abstract that is constantly manifested in the lyrics is reflected in an even more pronounced way by the music itself. Conventional- sounding songs (by Of Montreal standards, at least) morph into chaotic, cathartic freakouts and noise collages in the record’s second half. The arrangements throughout are typically dense, but Barnes seemingly kicks every piece of equipment he can find into overdrive on songs like the album-closing ‘Authentic Pyrrhic Remission.’ Over the course of thirteen minutes, it moves from melody to madness and back again, finishing with a stripped-down recording of Barnes on piano and vocals. It’s the album’s prettiest moment, but offers no closure or resolution to the all the conflict that’s preceded it. “Until this afternoon,” Barnes repeats, “I was a nomad,” “a pariah,” “an exile,” but what has changed by now remains unclear. Ultimately, I think that’s the point. Paralytic Stalks isn’t a record which proposes that the myriad issues of self-doubt, anger and bitterness that it deals with have any easy solutions. The nearest equivalent is to channel those feelings into sonic form and hope that helps to exorcise the demons. Here, that process makes for an inspired and compelling listen. A