‘Ambitious.’ It’s a bit of a dreaded word, a damning bit of faint praise usually reserved for albums that aim too high. “That album was bereft of anything memorable..… but it was ambitious.” Or, more accurately, “That concept album about vocoders and indigenous masks was ambitious, awful shit.”
Well, there’s no getting around it: of Montreal’s newest album, Paralytic Stalks, is capital-A Ambitious, with its sprawling second half, dense sonics, and ominous opening inquiry (self-described as “unanswered”): “You know what parasites evolved from?” But it’s also the best thing Kevin Barnes and increasingly growing company have produced since 2007’s masterful Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?. Most importantly, despite being an unapologetically “demanding” — not actually demanding, but more on that later — listen, it never once falls into the self-seriousness that occasionally plagued Sufjan Stevens’ similarly-minded The Age of Adz. Nor does it reek of Barnes trying desperately to convincingly channel the cracked queercore of a Cody Critcheloe or Jake Shears, as too much of his glammed-up post-Gay Parade output has. Instead, we’re getting an intensely confessional record that holds a microscope up to seemingly ordinary things: “human existence, revenge, self-hatred, and his relationship with wife Nina,” toots the press release. So despite the initial appearance of affectation, these songs are organic pieces of work that unfurl over time to reveal a distinct humanity. Alongside that well of introspection lie some of the strongest hooks and most disarming words Barnes has ever written; the album’s first five songs marry crazed production with direct sentiments magnificently. It all comes together perfectly on the album’s best entry point, the wondrous “Spiteful Intervention”: “I spend my waking hours haunting my life/ I made the one I love start crying tonight.”
Such frankness helps keep the album from flying away on some delusional magic carpet, which is undoubtedly thankful. But although Paralytic Stalks possesses a brilliantly concise yet filled-to-the-brim first half, the album really shows its mettle (and true colors) when it lets loose, at the risk of appearing insufferably orotund. Barnes citing Penderecki and Ligeti among his influences doesn’t exactly silence accusations of grandiloquence. But although droning tone clusters can be found here, Barnes usually partitions dissonance too rigidly within the conventionally dichotomous relationship between atonality and tonality (the former is a wrong that must be made right!) for Paralytic Stalks to really stand alongside the works of such artists. That’s not to say, however, that Barnes’ achievement is any less worthy; if we have to make a “classical” parallel at all, it would probably be Berio’s Sinfonia, not coincidentally a work given to profoundly eclectic flights of fancy.
In fact, that attachment to tonal hierarchy is, in the album’s most sublime moments, used as a strength. Both “Ye, Renew The Plaintiff” and “Wintered Debts” clumsily adopt shrieking discordance in their extended codas, only to make the assured return to a safe tonal center more satisfying and, in the case of the former track, cathartic. And then there’s “Exorcismic Breeding Knife,” bound to provoke endless discussion about its supposed avant-ness (it has already been dubbed the album’s “Revolution 9,” arf); taken on its own sonic terms, though, the track is a fairly simple harmonic exercise: seven minutes of layered clusters, with instruments running amok with no regard for their safety or that of others, ending in a massive burst of diatonic triadic harmony (in the traditionally “royal” key of E-flat, no less). Structurally, it’s a bit of a mess, a bit too formless and hamfisted for that long crescendo and climax to feel really earned, but as a compositional parallel to Barnes’ anxious, Ono-esque phrases (“Is there a therapist? Is there a psychosis? Is there a comedy outside? How can you perform? How can you operate?”) it’s both admirable and successful.
But if we are to view eschewal of traditional pop form as merely one facet of the cracked identity on display here, not as a virtue, then the best thing here is unquestionably “Authentic Pyrrhic Remission,” the album’s gloriously unhinged finale. Here is where the impact of that mischievous Pole and provocative Hungarian really prove fruitful, where Barnes makes a better case for complete and utter deconstruction-as-art than “Impossible Soul” ever did across its 26-minute runtime. Like most of the sprawling tracks on Paralytic Stalks, “Authentic Pyrrhic Remission” starts out as an almost-regular song, with plenty of hooks to go around. But then an alien-sounding chorus of Kevins insists, “Every time I listen to my heart I just get hurt,” and all hell breaks loose. Those shrill drones return, and eerie woodwind arpeggios sound like demonic carnival machines threatening to take over, but unlike the ones populating “Exorcismic Breeding Knife,” these sustained tones evolve, and they evolve beautifully, shifting in and out of recognizable forms until Barnes ends the album on a self-consciously, heartbreakingly simple note. Struggle manifests itself in sound, and the warring factions of our troubadour’s interior are only reconciled through a total and not exactly cathartic annihilation: “There are no nations, no concept of ego/ Our illumination is complete.”
And this is why what we have here really isn’t a “difficult” album at all; it’s too personal and too deeply felt to be something merely admired. When the music is thorny, it’s purposefully so, gleefully passing “excessive” but stopping short of “masturbatory.” As a portrait of a confused man attempting to make artistry and conscious earthbound reality compatible, the album is zealous and dizzying. But there’s a reason why the product of such evidently personal anguish exists in commercial form at all — because in this fierce mess of a record, there is, inevitably, something all-embracing to be shared with the world. Here’s the thing: At the end of the day, Kevin Barnes is really trying to make good pop. Paralytic Stalks is just that, bombast and all.