There are so many things happening on the Of Montreal album Paralytic Stalks, so many horns and strings and layered harmonies swirling together at the same time — not to mention the whirs, beeps and chimes whose sources you might not be able to place — that it’ll leave you with a feeling akin to waking from a particularly bizarre dream. Take for example, the album’s fourth track, “We Will Commit Wolf Murder.” The off kilter, synth-heavy pop song doesn’t have a chorus, but is instead tied together by one line repeated across several verses by Of Montreal lead singer Kevin Barnes. “There’s blood in my hair,” he sings — almost happily, it seems — but never explains why it’s there or whose veins it came from. Go on, just tell me you haven’t ever had a nightmare like that before.
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But, like a dream, Of Montreal’s experimental weirdness is grounded in a reality we recognize. Barnes has released an album nearly every year — never going more than two — since Of Montreal’s 1997 debut, Cherry Peel. Back then, Of Montreal was mostly a solo project, and Barnes worked in a traditional 1960s-inspired pop-rock vein similar to his Elephant 6 companions Apples in Stereo and Olivia Tremor Control. (Elephant 6 was a collection of likeminded, likesounded indie rock bands based in Denver and Athens, Georgia in the 1990s—Barnes wasn’t a founding member but he was associated with them). But over time, he slowly traded in his 2- and 3-minute Beatle-esque pop melodies for long, experimental soundscapes woven together with the help of computers. A lot of computers. That’s why Barnes expands his musical project to include dozens of multi-instrumentalists during concerts — there’s no way one man could perform this psychedelic carnival on his own.
Barnes used to write and record his albums alone at his home studio in Athens, but on his last effort, 2010’s False Priest, he employed an outside producer, Jon Brion, as well as guest musicians and vocal performances from the likes of Janelle Monaé and Solange Knowles. The result was a funked out, genre-defying menagerie composed of 13 mostly danceable tracks that earned Barnes frequent comparisons to Prince and David Bowie.
Paralytic Stalks is equally eclectic — I can’t think of a contemporary music genre that isn’t featured here in some form or another — but the result is completely different. The album’s nine songs still have their catchy, danceable moments, but they’re often sandwiched between meandering, almost avant-garde compositions and ominous, atonal scores. The last half of Paralytic Stalks features a set of experimental suites that range between seven and 13 minutes long. Synthesizers, violins, and electric guitar create a cacophonous sound as Barnes varies his falsetto voice on double- and triple-tracked harmonies by changing his distance from the mic. The result is a frenetic, attention-starved album that, if it were a child, would almost certainly be put on Ritalin. Barnes’ lyrics are equally unhinged; in addition to the references to hair blood, they also mention exposed brains, parasites and the time Barnes slipped on his own vomit. But they’re not always discernible over the multi-instrumental clamor. It’s possible to listen to the entire record without any idea of what the songs are about.
If this sounds daunting to you, if you like your music short, quick and without references to viscera, then Paralytic Stalks might not be the album for you. Indeed, Barnes has said in interviews that he knows it’s “probably not something everybody’s going to like.” But that’s a shame, because the album offers up some truly fine music. For example, once you wade through a minute and 25 seconds of space age noises and random mutterings on the opening track “Gelid Ascent,” Barnes breaks out into a thrilling rock song that’s surprisingly reminiscent of Oasis’ early days. The first single, “Dour Percentage” is a psychedelic, disco dance song. It would fit easily on Hissing Fauna Are You the Destroyer?, Of Montreal’s 2007 album that perfectly mixed Barnes’ traditional rock-pop melodies with his then-new experimental tendencies. And “Wintered Debt” is a beautiful piece that begins as a quiet and subdued as a lullaby, layers on some elegant harmonies and then explodes into truly raucous baroque orchestral pop. But it only lasts for a little while; the last three minutes of the song are filled with something that sounds like a Twilight Zone score. In a sense, “Wintered Debt” operates as three different songs in one.
That’s the joy of Of Montreal’s increasing madness; the songs on Paralytic Stalks can be endlessly dissected into their various components or they can be experienced together as a convoluted picture of one man’s bizarre musical imagination. Barnes still writes the occasional Beatle-esque melody. But these days, he may be more interested in “Revolution 9.”