On False Priests, Kevin Barnes set out to create accessible, danceable funk. Instead, he created an ingenious and incandescent rainbow of pop, rock and soul. But, despite contributions from R&B heroines Janelle MonÃ¡e and Solange Knowles and star producer Jon Brion, Barnes’s dazzling hybrid not only failed to generate Of Montreal that expected mainstream breakthrough, but also generated some unexpectedly harsh reviews. That combination provoked the Athens, Georgia, bandleader to overhaul his aesthetics (see eMusic’s Q&A for details). Paralytic Stalks is the result.
Unlike its predecessor, of Montreal’s 11th album makes few attempts to play nice; there are no diva cameos, fewer hooks, and the fractured rhythms from drummers Matt Chamberlain and Clayton Rychlik rarely stay steady for more than a minute. Instead, Paralytic Stalks‘ abrupt stylistic switch-ups, dissonant harmonies and alternately garish/strident string and horn arrangements evoke the wildness of free jazz and the adventurousness of avant-garde classical composers. Barnes still plays all guitars and keyboards, but there’s considerably less synth than on the last few albums, and the singer rarely employs his Prince-ly falsetto. Instead, he yelps and shouts and screams while the instrumentation jump cuts from ornately psychedelic pop to dense swarms of flutes and violins that descend like locusts on rock’s remains.
With its atypically light melody and unmistakable whiff of strawberry fields, “Dour Percentage” provides the easiest way in to Paralytic Stalks. But Barnes sings of painful discord, here and throughout. He laments the state of his marriage (“Spiteful Intervention”), cries out to a righteous soul sister for guidance (“We Will Commit Wolf Murder”), reveals to his wife the depth of his suffering (“Ye, Renew the Plaintiff”), and subjects his songs to ominous noise outbursts (“Wintered Debts,” “Exorcismic Breeding Knife,” and “Authentic Pyrrhic Remission.”). Finally, in the last two-and-a-half minutes of the latter track and the album itself, Barnes unexpectedly offers a serene piano-and-voice coda that recalls John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Like Lennon, he dreams that national borders have dissolved and human ego has vanished. He’s not as idealistic as the late Beatle, but at least he’s achieved a temporary, fugitive peace.