Consider it a journalistic standard: You can’t craft a review of an Of Montreal record without mentioning that Outback Steakhouse commercial at least once. Most of the time, writers bring it up because it’s a fine example of the commercialization of independent music—and it shows how a catchy (and, more importantly, bitingly nihilistic) tune can be taken completely out of context by advertisers. After listening to Paralytic Stalks, the latest effort to spring from the gleefully tortured minds of Kevin Barnes and company, the absurdity of the entire matter will finally be brought to light. Of Montreal is a project designed to challenge our notions of what pop music can and should be. Indeed, listening to Paralytic Stalks is a difficult and sometimes uncomfortable process. But it’s also one that is quite rewarding, granted that you’re able to leave behind your preconceived notions of catchy hooks and let Barnes take the reins.
That is not to say that this LP is devoid of Sunlandic Twins-era immediacy. Within the five-plus-minute running times of most of the album’s tracks rest many of the band’s aural touchstones: springy, hollow bass riffs, choppy guitars and, of course, Barnes’s glammy falsettos blown up to billboard size. “Ye, Renew The Plaintiff” is classic Of Montreal fare, all grown up and bulked out; the same freak-funk that fans know and love, just a little rougher around the edges and with the chameleonic tempo and key changes of the band’s later work. “We Will Commit Wolf Murder,” meanwhile, takes a simple, loping melody and pairs it with a velvety bass and strings before allowing it to collapse into a feverish rave coma.
And that’s where the similarities end. Paralytic Stalks drops the straightforward approach of 2010′s False Priest for a more prog-y, avant-garde direction. Gone is Barnes the flamboyant, purring ladies’ man; in his stead is a broken-hearted, rambling intellectual. “You are what parasites evolved from,” he deadpans on brooding opener “Gelid Ascent.” After the 45 seconds of static that herald this announcement, it becomes abundantly clear that Paralytic Stalks‘ Barnes is not in the mood to get drugged up and go to the disco. He’d rather describe the madness inside his head, all through the use of 25-cent words.
The madness is musical, too, and it’s in this sphere that things become entirely alien. With the exception of roller-disco-derby jam “Dour Percentage” and the ghastly “Malefic Dowery” (Note to Barnes: Leave the lounge music to Richard Cheese), Paralytic Stalks‘ songs take the shape-shifting seen in 2008′s Skeletal Lamping to an extreme. Time signatures change more frequently than do the moods of the worst PMS sufferer, and melodies get buried beneath furious, screeching swarms of violins and woodwinds. It can create some nice ambiance, such as on the creepy “Wintered Debts.” Other times, it can cause even the biggest fans to throw up their hands in defeat; “Exorcismic Breeding Knife” is an insufferable seven minutes of caustic feedback, de-tuned strings and mutterings about “paper-shredded cowboys.” Those with a knack for the extremely experimental might be able to find some meaning beneath the chaos, but the vast majority of listeners will be left scratching their heads.
But maybe that’s the point. Every time we start to get comfortable with Of Montreal, the band throws us another curve-ball. After a straightforward pop record, we get its polar opposite. Just as soon as we get comfortable with Georgie Fruit—Barnes’s black, transsexual, cheerful musical alter-ego—he vanishes in a puff of glittery smoke, and we’re left in the deepest throes of misery. And yet, our tastes recalibrate alongside the band’s transformations, broadening our understanding of pop on a more large-scale level. No, Paralytic Stalks isn’t an Of Montreal album stuffed with steakhouse jingles. But therein lies the charm.