By Dom Sinacola & Kaylen Hann | 13 March 2012
The only problem I have is caring.
Yeah. We know, Kevin. Us too.
Paralytic Stalks is an album about flagellation. It’s of Montreal’s eleventh album, too, which means that if by now Kevin Barnes has anything to whip us with—repeatedly, unmercifully—it’s his prolificacy, which also by now is beginning to feel like the exact same thing, namely Barnes’s dead-eyed self-absorption, defined and re-defined over and over and over. Has the “O” always been lower-cased in their name? We are being collectively asked to forget what we know of Barnes before and accept the latest epic consolidation of his soul-rending pain. It seems ages ago that Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? (2007? Huh.) focused Barnes into a single, blinding point of heartache; that was an album sprawling but lithe, solipsistic but paced like a patient coming-of-age gone tragically wrong. Everything since instead takes possibility and restlessness to unforgiving extremes, each new of Montreal album a box wherein it doesn’t matter whether Schrödinger’s cat is alive or dead because it’s always dead inside.
It didn’t seem possible for a band in itself to be untenable. And it’s frankly hard to care when we’re lashed like this, especially by a devoutly creative and experimental band who’ve proven their talent at restraint and focus in the face of a melodramatic aesthetic begging to be set obnoxiously free. It’s hard to care when their every sound is ephemeral, when we submit and hear them grasp at aesthetic straws and flail without focus for sound or for timing to the degree they appear to be flailing in Paralytic Stalks. It is seriously a staggering lot of ineffectual flapping about here; and all this bluster amounts to a measly portion of interesting textures, to some glimpses of a fresh brutality in Barnes’s vocals—the way his voice breaks and obliterates itself when he sings, “Eating a hole in me” (“Ye, Renew the Plaintiff”) is both touching and successful in its self-abusing autobiography—but mostly: to a whopping chum-bucket overflowing with shitty lyrics. Lyrics that have jumped the violent trajectory of the last albums and feel, to be honest, swiped from some online high school scream poetry collection. These are the recesses of Barnes’s brain purged; behold his agony:
You speak to me
Like the anguish of a child doused in flames
Oh, you speak to me
Like the stones that’re bashing your skull and brain exposes
Oh it’s always been the same
200,000 years of viciousness
The violent art dissolves
A lost, suffering, weak, cracked out species
Those are the first words on this album. There’s a high tide of exhaustive energy churning in those words, splitting up these textures and swapping out these beats and genres and instrumentation. Even the energy behind the invective of Kevin Barnes’ vocals as he hurls broadstroke cultural and personal condemnations alike against the wall that is the tolerance of every human around him, is so charged it reeks of a freakish obsession.
To obfuscate? Or to render the contradictory and unending chaos of one’s Ego as literally as Kevin Barnes can? It’s never clear, even when he insists on speaking as difficultly as possible about the most obvious shit imaginable in interviews. His lyrics operate identically; he makes complicated music about boring emotions. Boring because we can’t relate: this is the pain of a man cut to the bone with doubt and delusion, a man both surprisingly empathetic, even enlightened, who has a knack for ruining all good will by casting his struggles in as sociopathic a way as possible. Hissing Fauna may be this album’s precursor in the sense of its uncomfortable sincerity, but Paralytic Stalks treats consistency, resolution, even functionality as diseases to sweat out. Fauna found in them taste and purpose. Or something. Who cares.
Nowhere is Barnes’s total lack of taste more obligatory than in “We Will Commit Wolf Murder,” where an affectless, string-soaked coda makes bliss from the knuckly clutter drowning the first three and a half songs before it. How fat and sweet it glows from the rubble! But then Barnes shits the bed and horns in on this “there’s blood in my hair” lyric amidst something that’s, actually, worse than a Skrillex song. There was this Simpsons episode on, just now, in which Homer was trying to make out with Marge while wearing an adult diaper. Even though despite all sense and decency Marge still seems to be going with it, Homer begins a strip-tease by un-sticking his diaper. At which point Marge correctly ends their liaison. “We Will Commit Wolf Murder” is Barnes doing a strip tease out of his adult diaper, an adult diaper he wears not because he’s into infantalism—and there’s nothing wrong with that—but because he shits the bed. And Paralytic Stalks is another Simpsons plot revolving around Homer and Marge’s flailing marriage due to Homer’s disgusting self-absorption. It’s tired and smells old. Or like shit. And some people are into that. Which is fine.
Sidenote: we conjecture “Spiteful Intervention” is really Barnes finally addressing 9/11 ten years later. Also that “Pancakes for One” may be about the Viet Cong.
While the better material lies in the final tracks, the opening four are so explosively exhausting that just looking and seeing that the last tracks are a nine-minute long abysmal something called “Ye, Renew the Plaintiff,” followed by two nearly eight-minute-long toilet bowls of words, capped off with a final thirteen-minuter…it just makes the heart sink. Like “Green Car Crash” from Andy Warhol’s Death and Disaster Series, where bright color was a counterpoint to the violence and disturbing interplay of figures, Hissing Fauna offered plenty of graceful, blitz-high counterpoints to its rank content. But Stalks only blows its load as it weeps about blowing its load. And similar to Warhol, Barnes’s openness to making mistakes is its own (if not its singular) flail at personality. And sure, its imperfection might technically be a much-looked-for sign of humanity in the white noise that is Barnes Unfettered. But it’s hard to read these flaws as vulnerabilities when they’re hurled at you with such antagonistic, abusive force.
It is, after all, a latent abuse inherent in “Wintered Debts,” some seven minutes of segments covering Elliott Smith and country maybe and, um, “Rites of Spring”? If Barnes is channeling his own overwhelming sadness through genres or artists who might as well be genres which epitomize the overwhelming sadness he so struggles to express—then fuck this guy. If not, it’s a mess.
Garish though they are, the first five minutes of the final track could be a resolved song, if only in the way the tag-teaming genres fold over or struggle away from one another relatively smoothly—even while the pervasive tone sustains that Four Loko kind of pallor (“Every time I listen to my heart I just get hurt”) beyond any palatability. So maybe it’s his heart he’s “la la la”ing over, to the tune of a redheaded stepchild with fingers plugged in ears. If that doesn’t drown it out, the ensuing five minutes of kettle-whistle-high noise play is a good bet. But if you do make it through the album, the increasingly demanding song lengths, and the five minutes of noise, what you get is perhaps a glimpse at what he’s been “la la la”ing over this whole time, eventually dissolving into what feels less like a song and more like an apology (an excuse) writ in mellifluous piano balladary. A contemplative cog might still be turning but it only turns to generate Barnes depicting himself as an “idea refugee” alone; “in exile”; “chased, kicked, hit.” Half #kanyeshrug and half Fiona Apple, Kevin Barnes’s final sentiments are basically saying he’s Fieval Mousekewitz?
Thanks for reading, dummies.