Artist: Of Montreal

Album: Paralytic Stalks

Perhaps it’s because the real ending of the Beatles was so disappointing — four men who’d pushed each other to brilliance got tired of doing so, released a spotty final record, and spread outward to fairly ordinary musical careers — but sometimes I’ll see a new and unrelated record as if it of_montreal_paralytic_stalkswere an alternate Choose Your Own Adventure of the Beatles’ story. Of Montreal’s Paralytic Stalks, for example, is the version where John and Paul and George and Ringo go ahead and loathe each other, but express it in bitter lyrics and a deepening creative tension where they’re ever more inclined each year to reach in and screw with each other’s songs, yanking them back and forth in increasingly unlikely directions. Without ever messing up their best melodies. Oh, and they’ve kept doing this long enough to be as influenced by disco and Parliament/ Funkadelic as by modernist orchestral music… although Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road remain in sight and in mind at most times.

In reality, Of Montreal are a shifting collective led by an American named Kevin Barnes. They began playing giggly psychedelic folk, developed a leftist political edge, then tightened their sound to make a couple of ebullient but professional pop records, Satanic Panic in the Attic (’04) and the Sunlandic Twins (’05), both of which sound more than a little like the Magical Mystery Tour re-done with drum machines, synthesizers, and funky electronic bass. Barnes sold one of his catchiest songs, Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games, to Outback Steakhouse for rewriting with jingle lyrics, a tribute to commercialized gluttony which sits quite poorly with attacks on the greed of politicians. So after a few defensive and snotty interviews, he started writing about topics he could bring sincerity (and redeeming sly humor) to, like his favorite drugs and sex acts. The songs over several albums got less catchy and more complex, which often is a trade I’m happy with, but which in this case mostly lost me. I may or may not have been influenced by the time I waited 2+ hours past Of Montreal’s scheduled stage appearance at Gate City Noise before they showed up, stoned out of their minds and barely able to half-remember their songs … but not, I assume, rejecting that night’s paycheck either.

Paralytic Stalks is a triumph, though. On the one hand, it’s overstuffed and bursting with some of my favorite melodies Of Montreal have ever recorded. On another hand, it’s as expressively vicious (outwardly and inwardly) a set of relationship lyrics as I’ve ever seen, which also makes its periodic stumbles towards truce and redemption more powerful. On a third hand — Paralytic Stalks being a deformed creature with many non-standard body parts — it combines Barnes’s long-established interests in psychedelia, pop, funk, cabaret, and disco with a brand new interest in strings and flutes, long droning tone clusters, and outbreaks of free-jazz orchestration. All of which are used with the expressionist power of a Edvard Munch painting, and are reined in to bring a form of peace.

The poppiest moments make sense to explore first. Spiteful Intervention is the obvious single, even with dissonant strings and harpsichord peeking around the edges and rickety drums collapsing in the background. Beginning with dramatic narration-singing — “It’s fucking sad that we need a tragedy to occur to gain a fresh perspective in our lives/ Nothing happens for a reason, there’s no use pretending, you know the sad truth as well as I” — it moves into lilting sing-song over ’80s dance-pop. Then it launches into the acrobatic chorus melody: “I spend my waking hours haunting my own life/ I made the one I love start crying tonight/ and it felt good! Still, there must be some more elegant solution”. The melody spins its own memorable variations and continues: “Lately all I can produce is psychotic vitriol/ that really should fill me with guilt”. The backup singing supports a mood like the mad laughter before a breakdown. Yet it’s the catchiest thing — and if quite exaggerated from the worst things I’ve ever felt (so far) about anyone I loved, it’s recognizably vivid.

Dour Parentage, riding in on massed flutes and echoey drums, is top-notch experimental Stevie Wonder with modern recording technology.  We Will Commit Wolf Murder is a pretty ’80s dance tune and love song, chopped and screwed: the vocal production and instrumental arrangements changing almost every line, and the sentiments along the line of “Someone’s terrorized my psyche to get even/ Lately you’re the only human I believe in” and “I’m considered ugly from every angle/ You’re the only beauty I don’t want to strangle”. Malefic Dowery is genteel pre-rock drawing-room pop, with a bit of hymnal a-capella, about how “Now I feel that you’re provoking me with your fidelity/ that your loyalty and affections are somehow a vulpine act of hostility/ Now we’re a bore, we’re afternoon TV”. It’s sort of a love song too.

The long tracks, 7 to 13 minutes, are the ones with the thorniest passages. I don’t find ’em difficult — my Dad was (among other things) a minor-but-talented modernist composer who played me Bartok and Penderecki when I visited him — but for those of you who do, I’ll point out simply that the weird classicisms aren’t a gimmick; they’re *used*, in a surprisingly straightforward way. The songs start with hummable melodies (especially Wintered Debts, like Paul McCartney and Marvin Gaye getting together to taunt you personally, and Authentic Pyrrhic Remission, soulful and sunny). They move into weird tonalities, slowly-evolving repetitions, and aggressive dynamics when the lyrics get, well, even more desperate than usual. They return to pleasant tunes (not the same as they began with) in search of partial resolutions. I’d hate to marry someone like Kevin Barnes; well, that isn’t news. There are nights — not too many, but some — when I’d hate to marry someone like me either. Paralytic Stalks is a masterful evocation of that. Not bad for such good pop songs.

– Brian Block

To see the rest of our favorites, visit our Favorite Albums of 2012 page!