Almost five years ago to the day, Kevin Barnes released his magnum opus, Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?, a transformational piece of work that best defines his eccentricities. As a songwriter, with that 2007 album, he went from quirky and experimental to being an electro/dance/glam-pop powerhouse. Conceptually, he went from a married man to a sex-driven transvestite named Georgie Fruit. Barnes was found belting out his sorrows in intensely euphoric numbers, and since then, on 2008’s Skeletal Lamping and 2010’s False Priest, he explored his newfound sexual freedoms and romantic love. On Paralytic Stalks, he has fallen into depression yet again, and it’s not nearly as much fun this time around.
Barnes’ demeanor can be found a near-sulk, and just when Of Montreal‘s song structure appeared its most traditional on False Priest, melodies here are simple, amorphous and choruses are sparse. In short, this is not the bubbly and darkly debaucherous Barnes of late. Though the trademark sonic quirk and fantastically elevated language are still present, Barnes is not nearly as energetic as he is harshly pensive. Within five minutes, on “Spiteful Intervention,” Barnes utters, “It’s fucking sad that we need a tragedy to occur to gain a fresh perspective in our lives.” On the same track, his chorus laments, “I spend my waking hours, haunting my life / I made the one I love start crying tonight / And it felt good / Still there must be a more elegant solution.” When did Barnes become so obsessed with thought processes that he completely forgets to celebrate hedonism via radical narratives and drug-addled self-empowerment anthems of sorts? He has seemingly begun thinking about the very same erratic emotions that have been guiding his pen for at least seven years.
Later, on the same track, he says he and his significant other must “disavow their quotidian characters,” going on to perhaps clarify: “lately all I can produce is psychotic vitriol that should really fill me with guilt, but all I have is asthmatic energy.” Still more, on “Malefic Dowery,” he digs deeper, “Love is not a debtor’s prison / You don’t have to serve a sentence / To pay back what you’ve been given / Now I live in fear of your schizophrenic genius / It’s a tempestuous despot / That I can’t seem to propiciate … Once more I turn to my crotch for counsel / And it won’t disappoint me.” The intensity increases still more on the following track, “Ye, Renew the Plaintiff” after condemning his personal, emotional shortcomings, he becomes self-pitying: “I’ve inherited spiritual sanctions / For some old ancestral crime / It was committed long ago / But the punishment’s absolved all down the family line / Everyone’s so unstable on my mother’s side / And emotionally barren on my father’s side / But tell me how can I attempt to atone / For somebody else’s willful ignorance?”
Barnes hasn’t simply ratcheted up his emo side, he’s playing psychotherapist for relationships past and present – interesting, considering the rumored relationship between Barnes and Janelle Monáe after they toured together last year. For over a decade these guys have held a whimsical, unpredictable yet singular sense of entertainment, and suddenly, when listening to Paralytic Stalks, it’s like sitting in a marathon therapy session, rehashing and repenting for years of “ego sickness.” And as a longtime listener, it’s a fascinating turn. Unfortunately, this intensely personal approach doesn’t make for a very cathartic, inviting listen. With music, as with real life, nobody likes being directly told how to feel, rather they like being viscerally shown.
The last two tracks attempt to share that sentiment, as “Exorcismic Breeding Knife” plays like a horror movie soundtrack, high-pitched strings, indecipherable mumblings and ominous woodwinds all in order. This goes on for almost eight minutes before the last track, “Authentic Pyrrhic Remission,” opens up a respite of daylight and positivity, both musically and lyrically. The song is more than 13 minutes long, so naturally there is a scene of horror spliced in the middle, but the clouds clear for the last time as yet another transformation of Barnes’ character appears to have taken place. A lone piano calmly backs his admissions that “until this afternoon” he had been a nomad, a friar and an exile, but now “our illumination is complete.”
While glimpses of these songs are quite enjoyable, the erratic nature is becoming clinical; the music under-attended and the lyrics overwrought, even if genuine. It’s such a rollercoaster, it cries for days before Barnes let his introversion take over his pen, the days of old people in the cemetery, peacock parasols and Lester losing his wife.
Stream: Of Montreal – “Dour Percentage”