of Montreal: Pulling Off the Mask

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The key track on Paralytic Stalks, the new of Montreal album, is “Ye, Renew the Plaintiff.” This nearly nine-minute epic moves through seven separate sections as if descending through the layers of singer/songwriter Kevin Barnes’ despair. As it does, the song touches on nearly every aspect of Barnes’ genre-defying, era-defying music-making—not only on the rest of this album but also on his band’s 10 previous studio albums. Thus it illuminates one of the most distinctive careers in modern rock.

The track begins deceptively enough with an ear-grabbing, hip-tugging disco intro of clipped rhythm guitar and high-tenor “oohs,” as if an outtake from of Montreal’s last album, False Priest—or the Bee Gees’ soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever. Few people can craft this kind of dance-party music as convincingly as Barnes, and when he adds the radio-ready vocal melody, it seems as if he’s building on the top-40 success of 2010’s False Priest. The line, “I just can’t get hard for reality,” seems like one of his best jokes yet.

Only it’s not a joke. He really is in a depression so profound he can barely keep going. An erection is the least of his worries; he’s not sure he can even “motivate my heart to function” or “produce enough heat to keep our experiment alive.” This is a long way from his brassy declaration, “I’ll kiss you where I shouldn’t be, because you look like a playground to me,” on “Sex Karma” from False Priest.

“That discontent was something I was going through,” Barnes reveals over the phone from his home in Athens, Ga. “I don’t know why, but I went into this dark period in my life—a lot of suffering. It’s not something you can really control; sometimes it’s a chemical thing, I get into that state of mind that you might call depression or psychosis. There wasn’t one cause I could put my finger on; it’s probably a combination of many things.

“When I started writing these songs, I knew I wanted to express something more personal, more intimate. I didn’t want to make another record with a persona. Whatever forces were pushing me in that direction, compelling me to make a more personal record, I didn’t question.”

Near the end of the first verse, the dance-party music winds down, crumbling into creaky sound effects and dark piano chords in another key. It’s as if you can hear the gears grinding as Barnes tries to shift from one mood to another. An arena-rock guitar starts screaming, gets swallowed by a tape collage, then reappears to lead into the song’s third section: a pounding, glam-rock passage that might have come from T. Rex or early David Bowie.

“I had a demo of this other song that I’d been working on for a week or two,” Barnes explains, “and as I listened to it, I realized that the first verse was the only part I liked. I liked that it had this bizarre intro that would keep the listener off-balance, and I liked the funky electronic element. The rest of the song seemed too simple and too much like what I’ve done before. It’s more exciting to venture into new territory than to do the thing you know you can do.

“So I cut off that first verse and built ‘Plaintiff’ from there. I listened to that first stanza several times and said, ‘Okay, that’s the chord that it resolves on; what’s a new chord that could come next that would be new and interesting?’ This is a patchwork style of free composition that I’ve used in the past, where one thing doesn’t necessarily lead to the next.”

Barnes has used this approach before, but never as dramatically as he does throughout Paralytic Stalks, especially on “Plaintiff.” Listening to the song’s opening disco verse, followed by the avant-garde instrumental interlude, followed by the glam-rock second verse, is enough to give one whiplash. Barnes insists that that’s exactly the reaction he’s after; some of his favorite records by the Brazilian psychedelic band Os Mutantes and the British prog-rock band King Crimson gave him a similar head-spinning dizziness.

“What attracted me to Os Mutantes,” he says, “was they had songs that started one way and then went in a completely different direction. When it came back to where it started, you looked at the CD jacket and said, ‘Oh, this is the same song.’

“As human beings, we’re forced to absorb all these different elements and influences and make sense of them—which is great because it destroys all that homogeneity where everything looks the same and everyone sounds the same. This music is not just variety for variety’s sake; it makes you realize how diverse the world is. It makes you realize you don’t have any limitations; you can be any creature you want to be.”

In the glam-rock second verse, Barnes begins screaming lines such as, “Oh Nina, I’ve become so hateful, how am I ever gonna survive this winter?” Nina, as any Wikipedia reader knows, is the name of Barnes’ wife, and in addressing her by name with his suicidal self-doubts, he makes it clear that he’s not assuming a fictional persona, as he has so often in the past; he’s singing about his own life to the people closest to him.

“I’ve definitely sung many songs from a persona in the past,” Barnes admits, “especially with False Priest. When I was singing those songs, I imagined myself as a character, a hyper version of what I’d like to be. This time I had the need to express more from my personal life, as a kind of therapy to exorcise the demons.

“I don’t worry about exposing too much, because the records I’ve really adored are the records where the artists have laid down their emotions for everyone to see. I find that more attractive. But there are only a few albums that really lay it out there: John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, Sufjan Stevens’ The Age of Adz and several of Leonard Cohen’s.”

We usually think of confessional songwriting as taking place amid hushed acoustic instruments that evoke a sense of intimacy for the revelations. But Barnes surrounds his confessions of feeling “corrupted, broken, impotent and insane” with wailing guitars and thumping bass. In fact, by the end of the second verse, he runs out of words and in the song’s fourth section simply starts hollering, “Nina, Nina,” as if dueting with the long guitar solo.

“Leonard Cohen’s Death of a Ladies’ Man is an interesting case,” Barnes observes, “because the production by Phil Spector is so over-the-top it doesn’t work really. Nonetheless I’m fascinated by that combination of this really direct lyrical statement and this really flowery arrangement. On this record, I definitely wanted to combine those two sides.

“Musically I was trying to communicate in a non-verbal sense something that was as poignant as the words. You can definitely hear that in the middle of ‘Authentic Pyrrhic Remission’ with the string section or at the end of ‘Ye, Renew the Plaintiff’ with the saxophones, something messy and unruly. That’s what I was going through, and it’s easier to express that with music or screaming.”

Finally the guitar solo dissolves into a fifth section, where multi-tracked voices sing a high, wordless chord over buzzing industrial noise, which gives way to a child’s beeping toy and cyborg voices announcing their “hive conceit.” This section gives way to a sixth, where keyboards and flutes create a midtempo, Beatlesque, pop-rock feel. Here Barnes turns his attention from his wife to his parents, seeking the Freudian roots of his depression, as if his condition had been “absorbed all down the family line—everyone’s so unstable on my mother’s side and emotionally barren on my father’s.”

On the next song, “Wintered Debts,” he will explore this further, feeling “betrayed by my mother’s religion” and asking, “Father, will our crime be that of grace or abuse?” On both songs, he fills his lyrics with hard-to-sing, polysyllabic mouthfuls such as “baleful ululation,” “spiritual sanctions,” “long-dead deity” and “self-hatred whisperings,” until the verbiage overruns all considerations of meter and line length.

“I don’t get that hung up on making the phrasing fluid all the time,” he says. “I find it inspiring to say ‘quotidian,’ a word I’ve never heard in a song before. There’s a lot of awkwardness in my vocal delivery for that reason. Bob Dylan on certain songs used really long lines that overlapped the natural space where you’d think the lyrics would go and the band would have to add an extra measure. I like that, because you’re not limiting yourself to the usual parameters.”

After singing about his family, the lyrics give way to a long, two-and-a-half-minute instrumental coda that suggests a battle for Barnes’ soul. On the optimistic side are nicely harmonized keyboard chords and a keep-on-keeping-on drum momentum. On the pessimistic side are strings, horns and backwards guitar sounds that seem to pull apart conventional harmony and to undermine a regular beat.

Before long, the strings and horns leave pop and rock music far behind to enter the realm of contemporary classical music where the broadened parameters allow all kinds of dissonance, odd meters and altered chords. Barnes took this direction even further on the new album’s seven-minute, largely instrumental piece, “Exorcismic Breeding Knife.”

“This is the first time I’ve ever tried to write a composition like that,” he says, “something that wasn’t Beatlesque. I threw all that pop stuff out the window and started working with how microtones can create a very unsettling, far-out quality to the music. I’d have one melody and then create another one that was borderline dissonant. That’s the great thing about the voice; you can pitch it up a bit or down a bit because there are no frets in the throat.

“I’ve listened to a lot of classical music, and I gravitated to people like Charles Ives and Krzysztof Penderecki. Penderecki’s ‘Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima’ was the most haunting, most emotive thing I’d ever heard. Those compositions are complex in a way pop music never even tries to be. On the other hand, a lot of avant-garde classical music can feel very intellectual and not very emotional. I was trying to combine the two.”

To accomplish this, Barnes was helped by some new collaborators. Although he composes, sings and plays much of his music by himself at home in Athens, he has learned to call in collaborators to do the things he can’t. That was especially true of these modern-art-music explorations, where he relied on the classically trained Kishi Bashi and Zac Colwell to do the string and horn arrangements respectively. They’ve become so integral to the of Montreal sound that they’ve become members of the touring band.

At the very end of “Plaintiff,” a big piano chord rings out, as at the end of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” It suggests that maybe, just maybe, some light is breaking on Barnes’ dark night of the psyche. This flickering match of hope becomes a somewhat brighter light—maybe a cheap, drugstore flashlight—on the album’s final song, “Authentic Pyrrhic Remission,” where he addresses someone—his wife, his deity, a friend, an alter ego?—and says, “You’re so empowering; in your hands, I’m quite simply a different instrument.”

“We have this strange attitude toward passion in this country,” Barnes claims. “It’s almost as if it’s something we try to avoid. So if you’re filled with passion, this strange energy, you feel like something’s wrong with you. Everyone’s trying to maintain this equanimity. Me, I’m trying to come to terms with the fact that I’m filled with that energy and I’m not crazy—even though I sometimes feel crazy.

“Just bringing those feelings to the surface so you can examine them, so you’re not controlled like a zombie by them, even to identify them, is helpful. When I listen to John Lennon, I don’t feel as fucked up as I did before because I don’t feel so alone. I would hope that this record might do the same for someone else.”