I’m a bit paralyzed myself in writing this review. I can’t seem to mobilize my thoughts in a way that would serve this latest of Montreal album. In addition to my own proclivity to self-sabotage, this record has left me weary, and feeling as though I have no ability to articulate its scope and vision. It’s as though I would have to compose my own hour of music to express what I’ve experienced but can’t put into words. After the sunshiney soul-funk of False Priest, the sexy alter ego antics of Skeletal Lamping, and even after what I had considered to be Kevin Barnes’s most self-revealing/reviling work, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, Paralytic Stalks is sonic violence, a passive-aggressive assault on your senses. The entire record is haunted by a searing high-pitched noise, regularly inducing a cacaphonic madness and spectral paranoia, but the sound never becomes muddy or muddled; instead, the production and composition are precise and crisp, lacerating in their clarity. Barnes has returned to the messy self-awareness of Hissing Fauna, but has kicked out the reassurance of poppy sing-a-long choruses and replaced them with the mercurial, unpredictable movements of Skeletal Lamping. In comparison with this latest album, Hissing Fauna’s nervous breakdown actually seems quite lucid and pleasant. There’s a punishing rhythm to Paralytic Stalks; the psyche-crushing intensity is bookended by those now-familiar wonky choirs of Barnes harmonizing with himself and almost-bucolic melodies, including fluttering flutes and gentle acoustic guitar. There’s also a sense of a relentless itch you cannot satisfy; a perching on the cusp of resolution without reaching it. By the end of Paralytic Stalks, your mind is crying out for a conclusive chord to tie up the infinite number of frayed ends that have stranded you on edge for the previous fifty-eight minutes.
The album opens with “Gelid Ascent,” which feels much like drowning in frigid waters. Reverb ricochets off more reverb like the disorienting push of water in your ears, and when the drum beat eventually kicks in, it sounds like a slow thrashing of numb limbs. Barnes’s vocals become garbled in a multitude of echoing, desperate pleas. In “Spiteful Intervention,” his vocals keep pitching into flashpoints of half-screamed taunting. Barnes rages against a reality that is increasingly meaningless and against his own ego whilst ruminating on his failings and self-hatred. His impotence is perfectly encapsulated in the lines: “There’s nothing to fight/it’s just a bitter fait accompli.” He recognizes his own fragility and malevolence; against a background of jaunty melody, he sings, “I made the one I love start crying tonight/And it felt good/Still there must be a more elegant solution.” It’s as though he can’t help himself in more way than one. As with several previous albums, much of the album seems to be directed at his wife, Nina Grøttland, dissecting the contradictions and complexities of their life together. The lightest track on the entire record is “Dour Percentage,” which, perhaps unsurprisingly, will be released as the first single. It floats in a psychedelic bubble of deceivingly saccharine music as Barnes negotiates the complications of his marital relationship. There’s an atmosphere of beleaguered alienation as he sings “this planet is an orphanage” and of a “personal ghetto.” The mutual torment continues in a more twisted fashion on “We Will Commit Wolf Murder.” Though Nina is the only person he can believe in, he also envies her capacity for belief. The agnostic antagonism reaches its frenzied, bestial heights as the song ends in distorted beats, sounding like a rave filtered through a bad hallucination. Barnes’s continued exclamations of “There’s blood in my hair” begin to sound much more murderous against this heavier backdrop, and he becomes like a trapped animal stripped of consciousness and ready to lash out. With the music ending in a fit of squeals, his sighing vocals carry you into the next softer track, “Malefic Dowry.” Although he sings of trying to remain Nina’s “rock ‘n roll ally,” he also adds the rather disturbing, impossible demands of his own emotional state, including “Now I feel you’re provoking me with your fidelity.” It’s as though Barnes is baring his threats and brandishing the misfortunate baggage to which Nina has yoked herself in marriage.
“Ye, Renew the Plaintiff” ushers in the half of the album with the lengthier, even more challenging, songs. In this track, Barnes actually addresses Nina by name, and two minutes into the song, his sweet falsetto performance has soured into the harsher taunting that appeared earlier. It’s like Barnes is tearing at his own brain in howling fury, trying to express the inability to escape his own corrupted thoughts. The music mirrors his mental state in squeals and pounding drums, helping him to articulate what he cannot otherwise: “I’m desperate for something/but there’s no human word for it.” You can feel the terror of recognizing the onset of depression in his half-screeched line “I’ve become so hateful/How am I ever going to survive this winter?” The song shifts gears in a myriad of squeaky whistles and a disembodied vocodered voice. As Barnes attempts to trace the ancestry of his own instability and emotional sterility, the music bounds along down a steeper path as though it cannot stop itself from tumbling into the looming abyss of “Wintered Debts.” In one of the most personally affecting moments of the album, Barnes nearly whispers the lyrics “Can’t survive another comedown day/where my spirit houses so much pain/so much bitterness” before swelling up with the anger of the music and proceeding with his “morbid fugue.” For those of us who can fall into an obsessive self-loathing that casts its moribund stench over everything we do, his rasping cry of “I can’t deal with mourning at the carcass of my failures any longer” is a magnificent metaphor. Four and a half minutes into “Wintered Debts,” the music begins to swirl in sinister, yet enchanting loops, like Giovanni Segantini’s “The Evil Mothers” come to life. The song then shifts back into a Beatleseque ballad as Barnes seems to experience a brief respite, singing that “the child of our struggle is free.”
“Exorcismic Breeding Knife,” the penultimate track, opens with a disjointed refraction, which spiders out with broken minor chords and horror film menace. The vocals shift from spoken-word to dream-like trance. There’s something terribly creepy about his lyric “horse-faced hours of ours,” as though he is plagued by true nightmares, time staring him down through equine eyes. Distant bell chimes add to the unsettling gloom before Barnes explores the lack of a system in dealing with this kind of pain; he later states that “There is no economy of despair.” His clipped vocals ask “How can you perform?/How can you operate?” as though his mind is a machine that has malfunctioned, and he is trying to find the correct frequency on which to recover, tuning different sounds and samples in and out. The final track on the album, “Authentic Pyrrhic Remission,” takes the bold experimental schizophrenia of the previous song a few hundred steps further. Though it begins with what seem to be facetious “la la la’s” and a final declaration of empowerment and return to some sort of salvation through his relationship with Nina, the strained jubilance drains away into another bout of chaos. The final movement of the suite is a glassy ambience slipping into a piano ballad. At this point, Barnes refers to himself as a nomad, a pariah, an exile, and a mongrel, but realizes that these terms are rendered useless in a world with “no nations” and “no concept of ego.” The last line of the record is the quietly sung “Our illumination is complete”; in this mockery of enlightenment, only the obliteration of a rational self and personal progress, and the erasure of all categorical boundaries can be a more elegant solution.
Paralytic Stalks is a sadistic and masochistic experience shot through with a brutally honest self-awareness. Kevin Barnes continues to fascinate, and I continue to empathize with him. As someone who lives with repeated mental hijackings by chemical imbalance, I can identify with much of Barnes’s exceedingly evocative lyrics and depending on my mood, this album can actually be a comfort in its blinding evisceration; it can become the welcome white noise I need to cleanse my fevered brain and drown out my own malevolent thoughts. With this record, Barnes seems to have reached a point at which he has had to resort to the non-verbal in order to articulate the unspeakable. Through a fluid musical exploration, he voices the vitriolic frustration with his helplessness and his exhausting struggle to free himself of the thoughts which prey upon him. Paralytic Stalks is an exceptional piece of noise therapy that expresses what it feels like to try to defend yourself whilst hunted down and cornered by your own claustrophobic anxieties and suffering through a suffocation of your own mind’s making. It is the sound of holding yourself hostage.
Paralytic Stalks is released on February 7. Preorder it at Polyvinyl.