It was sometime around the third or fourth extended coda, amidst buzzsaw guitar riffs, cheesy sci-fi space effects, the jarring tonal shifts and the occasional burst of fire alarm noise, that I resigned myself to a particular fact: Kevin Barnes is never going to change. Or, to put it another way - he's always going to change, usually with a middle finger aimed in the general direction of his last record. And really, there's no incentive for him to rein himself in: ever since The Sunlandic Twins of Montreal has become a one-man show, and certainly no one is holding their breath waiting for Polyvinyl to edit their biggest draw. So it is that we get an album like Paralytic Stalks, one that is as sprawling, egomaniacal and bat**** insane as any Barnes has put down. This lack of an editor is what leads to a song like the divisive "Exorcismic Breeding Knife," a song so obviously anti-commercial and contrary to what of Montreal have built their sound on that it's less an actual song and more a referendum on just how far Barnes can go nowadays before people bat an eye. Chances are this one won't be on an Outback commercial anytime soon.
Make no mistake - this is nothing new for Barnes. Sure, he has been talking up 20th century minimalism in interviews - Penderecki, Ives, Schoenberg - but those are just convenient touchstones for an increasingly out-there experimentalism that has been a recurring theme in late-period of Montreal: Hissing Fauna's "The Past is a Grotesque Animal;" "You Do Mutilate" off of 2010's False Priest; the scattershot framework of Skeletal Lamping. The difference between those songs and "Exorcismic Breeding Knife," though, is the latter's utter lack of purpose. It's simply there, a seven-and-a-half minute-long burst of atonality and spoken word nightmares, which creates quite the atmosphere but begs the question: why? It's cold and it's clinical, all feelings Barnes was probably going for, but in the context of Paralytic Stalks, an album predicated on Barnes being more heart-on-his-sleeve than he's ever been before, it's worse than pointless.
It's a shame, because, for much of Paralytic Stalk's first half and even for most of the more unhinged second act, Kevin Barnes strikes a near-perfect balance between pop mastery and a delightful sort of weird. This, of course, has a lot to do with Barnes' famously acerbic lyrics, which take a turn for the better here despite his propensity for using language only an English professor could love. He hasn't sounded this engaged since Hissing Fauna, nor have his vocals ever sounded quite so strained. That's the good thing about Paralytic Stalks - even when you can't really understand what Barnes is saying, between the deranged yelps and those easily understood tidbits ("It's ******* sad / that we need a tragedy / to gain a fresh perspective in our lives" goes one stomach-punch of an opening), you can generally get the feeling that this is coming from a dark and deeply personal place. Nothing is ever going to stop Barnes from naming a song "Malefic Dowery" or writing lyrics like "naturally I want to help you invoke the architect of salutary memes / our heads are pregnant with divine mechanics but, oh, how we're tyrannized / by tentacles of their ferine stupidity." But occasionally a gem will pop up like "once more I turn to my crotch for counsel," or Barnes will descend back down to the tongue of humans for a moment and speak with touching frankness ("I spend my waking hours haunting my life / I made the one I love start crying tonight" goes the weeping refrain from "Spiteful Intervention"). It's a reminder that of Montreal is, first and foremost, a vehicle for Barnes to express his innermost grievances and joys, and given the embarrassingly bare-bones style and narcissist bent, you have to admire just how plainly he lays all his cards out on the table.
Where Paralytic Stalks really shines, however, is through its hooks. The sequence from "Spiteful Intervention" through "Ye, Renew the Plaintiff" is Barnes' strongest since Hissing Fauna, and it's blissfully unaware of the existential baggage it has to carry. "We Will Commit Wolf Murder" and "Malefic Dowery" are probably two of the most "traditional" of Montreal songs here; the former a catchy pop-rock number with a muscular bass line and an out-of-left-field vamp in the outro, while the latter calls to mind the sweeter melodies of the Elephant 6 days and one of the more pleasantly lush productions on the record. "Ye, Renew the Plaintiff," meanwhile, might be the best track here, not only for its surprisingly jagged guitar solo and propulsive chorus but also for the way it perfectly bridges Paralytic Stalk's quite disparate halves. "I can think of nothing but getting my revenge / make those ******* pay," Barnes screams, and that's where the guitar really goes off, spiraling up into a glorious distortion before abruptly tailing off into the song's second half, where things rapidly go from angry to weird. Here, though, it's all according to plan: the way the song builds itself back up and around a driving piano beat and discordant saxophone; increasingly random bits of noise splicing in here and there, but eventually coming to rest right where they should; a major-key payoff musically and emotionally.
Things get less and less coherent as Barnes builds on this deconstruction of a pop song through "Wintered Debts" and the aforementioned "Exorcismic Breeding Knife," to the point where Barnes has squandered any goodwill and murdered the record's momentum by the time "Authentic Pyrrhic Remission" rolls around. It's a shame, because if any song could point to what Barnes can accomplish as an avant-garde musician, it's this one. The first half of the song is an old-school of Montreal classic in its own right, all sticky-sweet melodies and swinging hooks, yet when the expected shift comes to a blistering array of electronics and a downtempo move to horror-film strings, it flows logically rather than bashing the listener over the head with dissonance. The way Barnes slowly tones down the fuzz, segueing into the lovely wisp of a piano ballad that closes out the last two minutes, is a striking example of restraint from a man not usually blessed with that particular faculty. This is minimalism with a purpose, one that enhances the song and, with its gradual descent, provides a sort of comedown from the rest of the album as well. "Our illumination is complete," Barnes sings at the close, and it's an overdramatic statement for a typically overdramatic guy, but it's also one with a bit of hope for the future. Paralytic Stalks is most assuredly not the type of record that is going to get of Montreal a mainstream breakthrough a la The Sunlandic Twins, but for those of us who have been frustrated with his inconsistency and general unwillingness to stay in any one place, it just might be the twinkling of a light at the end of the tunnel.