Review Summary: Of Montreal teeter perilously close to biting off more than they can chew.
For the eccentric group that they are, Of Montreal
has a rather grounded frontman. Let me qualify- yes, technically Kevin Barnes is not grounded during concerts, but rather hopping around like the unrestrained teenage youth his music seems to speak best to – however, behind the curtain, Barnes is quite the logical musician. Odd, right? Let’s be honest - it’s so much fun to picture the most discussed indie musicians driving themselves crazy while creating their masterpieces. Justin Vernon basking in the isolation of his frosty winter cabin. Sufjan Stevens locking himself up in his urban apartment with a pair of headphones and a boundless supply of sheet music. Max Bemis writhing in the sterilized, padded rooms of a mental institution, attempting to clutch onto a sense of rationality that’s left him shivering alone in the cold. The concept of one giving their all, putting their soul into an album seems to imply parts of a masterpiece coming together to create something inherently beautiful. However, this is why Barnes is so intriguing; the way that his opinions aren’t pretentious, that his personality isn’t paranoid or abrasive, the way that he actually seems like a cool guy to hang out with led me to be curious as to why his music is so odd. I mean, he must have some form of cathartic therapy to keep him maintain his impressive level-headedness, especially considering the pandemonium of the group’s live org-ahem, concerts.
I give the man props for accomplishing this seemingly impossible task, and for not giving into the façade of a crazy-ass-dom that many of his peers practice religiously. He comes across as undeniably genuine, doe-eyed for Stevie Wonder and John Lennon but also passionately immersing himself in the delights electronic instruments offer. To find a balance between these two forms of music, more heartfelt refrains and electronic tour de forces is where we find him in 2012, and the inner workings of Barnes' mind are much more relatable upon hearing his group’s latest album, Paralytic Stalks.
Of Montreal has experimented at multiple styles within their career, from straight-forward indie tunes to dancefloor anthems, and this sense of exploration is still intact with its newest full-length. Paralytic Stalks is a stab at psychedelic fervor through the lens of electronics, one trip of an album that grabs the listener's attention through operating by its own pace. It has a lot to say, too – Barnes’ impassioned connection with the Age of Adz certainly adds to this phenomenon - and there are multiple venues in which Of Montreal decide to communicate.
From the catchy hooks present in the first half of the album to the complete and utter submersion in electronics in the latter half, there isn’t much ground that the band decides to not cover. And while much of it is great, there are dips in quality, lulls that only bring the album’s momentum to a rolling stop. For instance, the use of so many electronic elements is utilized well throughout the first half of the album, but towards its end the album tends to get so immersed in just that one element that there isn’t anything even remotely coherent. The track “Exorcismic Breeding Knife” wins the award for being way less pleasant than its already incredibly unpleasant title, only consisting of almost eight minutes of annoying, unnecessary ambience that leads absolutely nowhere and seems to denote a buildup, but in fact doesn’t lead to anything of the sort. Undeniably the low point of the album, the song contrasts painstakingly starkly with the lovely arcs of the album’s beginning; “Dour Percentage” is just the loveliest celebration to be had, and “Spiteful Intervention” is without a doubt my song of 2012 so far. It’s a shame that the album is so hit-and-miss, but the truth is that when a band aims for so many sounds within an album, they often end up communicating less than they intended, and there’s no exception here. However, the highlights of this album are great ones, and while it’s enticing to fantasize about the potentiality of the band tightening their grip on the ideas they feel are most urgent, what we have with Paralytic Stalks is an expression with some very important things to say. The aforementioned cathartic nature of this album rears its head in this manner, as we learn details about Barnes that enable us to connect with his persona even more acutely.
“Oh God, the morning sun, suns of paranoia; I can’t function unless I’m the only one awake.”
So while Paralytic Stalks does carry its humor on its sleeve and doesn’t always take itself too seriously, it also conveys tinges of passion exuded between the lines, subtle instances showcasing Of Montreal in this new era of technology-infused music. It shows a startling level of maturity, but also a rather alarming lack of restraint that renders Of Montreal less effective than they could otherwise be. Regardless of what this album could have been, though, it’s undeniable that this album is a big step; into what direction, though, only time can tell.