- SPIN Rating:4 of 10
Of all the psychedelic psychos who have professed membership in the Athens, Georgia-based indie-pop collective Elephant 6, none have written songs as maddeningly diffuse as Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes. His band's '90s recordings weren't artfully disjointed (like Olivia Tremor Control), or expressively messianic (like Neutral Milk Hotel), or playfully tweaked classic-rock (like Apples in Stereo). They were just the melodic doodles of a dude unwilling or unable to follow any but the most roundabout route from one note to the next, a series of incorrectly completed connect-the-dots puzzles that were borderline catchy enough to be mistaken for pop music.
Eventually, and unexpectedly, Barnes' hooks started falling into place. By 2005 he'd written a tune suitable for soundtracking an Outback Steakhouse commercial (minus the brand-inappropriate lyrics "Let's pretend we don't exist / Let's pretend we're in Antarctica"). Two years later, he premiered his alter androgyne "Georgie Fruit" on Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, and what seemed at first like amateurish drama-club nonsense was in fact a baby step toward deciding he he'd rather front the fabulous glam-dance band that emerged on 2010's False Priest. Whether driven to impress arty R&B guests Janelle Monáe and Solange Knowles, steadied by the hand of L.A. chamber-pop producer Jon Brion, or just lucky enough to have been prescribed the right meds, Barnes commanded a brand of indie-funk as convincing as his lyrical descriptions of unstable young women, and his evolution from twee to fey sounded like a genuine artistic achievement.
Well, hope you enjoyed that while it lasted. Barnes has talked up the self-produced Paralytic Stalks as an intense personal statement influenced by 20th-century classical music; that could mean a lot of things, but none of them is "Party!" What drives this album is the tension between discrete pop elements — keyboard tunelets, steady drum patterns, guitar arpeggios, free-falling xylophone — and a surrounding wash of electronics and strings (arranged by violinist Kishi Bashi). Even on the relatively straightforward "Dour Percentage," in which a flurry of falsettos and flutes and kettle drums resolves into brassy soft rock, terms like "verse" and "chorus" and "bridge" are less descriptions than wild guesses. The result is a nightmarish mess, but it's no relapse into disarray. Barnes must have patiently sweated out countless studio hours to simulate his chaotic psyche so intricately.
Which brings us to a question: why? Which, in turn, brings us to a lyric sheet wherein Barnes decries "the violent autism of our suborned, oblique, cracked-out species," calls for us "to suffer more, face our puerility, ban converts that vitiate, devise new stratagems to disavow our quotidian characters," and obsesses over the phrase "so much bitterness." For such a verbal guy, he sure does have a clotted way of expressing himself. And though you can't always judge a song by its title — after all, the Outback jingle was called "Wraith Pinned to the Mist (And Other Games)" — when five of an album's nine titles tag some hapless noun with a fancy-ass descriptor ("Gelid Ascent," "Malefic Dowery" [sic]), and the final two songs burden their nouns with two modifiers apiece ("Authentic Pyrrhic Remission"), we've clearly encountered a serious adjective-abuse problem.
Most damningly, for a record depicting a midlife spiritual crisis, Paralytic Stalks offers up some pretty damn collegiate insights: "It's fucking sad that we need a tragedy to occur to gain a fresh perspective on our lives," for instance. Often, you can't tell whether Barnes is addressing his god, his wife, or some poor unfortunate who happened to sit next to him on the bus. But let's pretend that "Can't you hear me crying out for guidance?" is directed at Jon Brion, and the whole of "Ye, Renew the Plaintiff" is at Kanye West. You know, just for fun. Because, after all, what could be more perverse than having fun while listening to an album that's so perverse?