For a guy as provocative, mythic, and breathlessly adored in certain circles, Kevin Barnes has gotten awfully predictable lately. Since the backhalf of 2007’s hugely-ambitious Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? And his much-publicized “transformation” into the saucy, gender-confused (and entirely made-up) avatar Georgie Fruit, of Montreal records have been a series of slightly-above-average creations of late-‘70s disco smut. By 2010’s False Priest it felt like they had worn the world’s patience to a paper-thin wafer. That touted iconoclasm? Hell, Barnes looked straight-up boring, contrived in his new incarnation, a far cry from the constantly-reconfiguring creative flare he made his name on. Barnes was deep in the pocket of his ideas, to the point you could hardly hear his voice. So in a sense, Paralytic Stalks is a shocking, refreshing, and occasionally achieving testament to the Kevin Barnes we almost forgot about; ditching the sweaty dance-pop pastiche for a sizable serving of the titanic, unhinged, and often psychotic prog-pop that at the very least reminds you of the man’s best work. After a prolonged intermission, Barnes has finally made another record that strictly requires a conversation.
People haven’t been writing much about Stalks, perhaps because it’s coming in January or perhaps the collective press is just expecting more placid bubble-funk – so let me be the first to tell you. The last four tracks all clock beyond seven minutes, with the finale “Authentic Pyrrhic Remission” wrapping up at a brisk 13:16. The lyrical themes encompass familiar tropes of doubt, hate, savageness, and the sour sides of love and marriage – not unlike the last time Barnes was responsible for high-arcing art in Hissing Fauna – apparently he’s calling this his most “personal” album to date. For Barnes that means a wide, phantasmagoric bath of fever-dream drums, beatific, fairytale atmospherics, rabbit-hole synths, and pinging, multi-tracked self-sung harmonies.
It’s all undoubtedly coming from a scatterbrained, and shockingly angry place. His poetry is complex but wrapped around some deeply troubling conceits. “Spiteful Intervention” is a fairly traditional Technicolor pop song, but Barnes introduces it with a spewed “it’s fucking sad that we need a tragedy /to get a fresh perspective on our lives.” It’s something an average musician would rarely admit, let alone sing, but Barnes has a history of wearing his messy emotions on his sleeve. It feels macabre wishing for angst, only because he’s amazingly capable of precisely ciphering the overrunning colors of psychosis, on Paralytic Stalks it’s near-hypnotizing. His words are strong, ubiquitous, surgically-selected, and almost always striking – complete with his usual literary bent. When he finally yells “LET ME TELL YOU HOW I REALLY FEEL” he’s already conjured enough torrential poetry to pack the punch of a record twice its size.
There’s also about four, flourished, utterly lovable of Montreal gems here. “Spiteful Intervention,” “We Will Commit Wolf Murder,” “Dour Percentage” are all quite lovely, full of the rushing, playful, and truly idiosyncratic pop-craft we all fell in love with. They coalesce in beautiful, centralized elements; a rumbling, schizoid, gauntlet-throwing reprise, the linear interplay between a soaring string section and a computerized drum-patter, and a chiming flute-orchestra flutter respectively. And then there’s “Malefic Dowery,” a charmed, whimsical number that has Barnes singing more gently and disarmed than he has in a long time.
But everything pales to the final suite. Following two spectral, playhouse, prog-indie epics (one of which explicitly namedrops his wife in some unflattering ways) we get “Exorcismic Breeding Knife,” a haunted, disfigured, radically perturbing collage of noise. There isn’t the slightest whiff of pop – instead owing its creation to artists like Nurse With Wound and Coil, far outside the usual of Montreal concepts. It isn’t necessarily good, but it certainly puts Barnes’ craft back in the dialog. It’s worthy of engagement; dynamic, provocative, likable, hateable, and most importantly, debateable. Paralytic Stalks is a record made by a genius or a hoity-toity psychopath depending on your perspective – call it whatever you want, but it certainly isn’t boring. To me, it sounds like of Montreal’s greatest achievements but doesn’t always feel like it – but frankly, the fact that someone could logically argue its opus status is what makes it powerful.