by Sean Horvath
Music has a tendency to focus on emotional extremes. Anything from triumphant joy to crushing heartbreak can be used as fuel in crafting a new hit album or single, and why shouldn’t it be? These are the memories that burn brightest in our minds, the ones that hold the power to drive us through the day to day. It’s no wonder that they occupy so much of our artistic real estate. Wherever there’s an emotional peak, there’s a valley, and it takes experience and maturity to craft something beautiful from these depths.
With Man Alive!, King Krule has demonstrated this skill to a T. One of many stage names used by musical wunderkid Archy Marshall, King Krule has made a career off of his unique brand of emotionally potent jazz-punk. Now, a year removed from the birth of his first child, the London born singer/producer has put together one of the most numbingly forlorn records of the past ten years.
There’s always been a sort of devil-may-care attitude to King Krule’s music, even if it’s masked in a thick film of angst and melancholy. Marshall’s debut album Six Feet Beneath the Moon announced the artist to the world as one of the rare few who are able to craft such a distinct sound right off the bat. The combination of youthful punk, jazz and hip-hop influences painted a picture of a new kind of teenage unease, one that was equal parts rebellious and sensitive.
On his sophomore album Marshall traded this optimism for a jaded sort of heartbreak. As its name suggests, The Ooz is a thick swamp of self-loathing and depression. Even its few high points aren’t enough to save the listener from sinking into a quicksand of negativity. Having explored these two ends of the spectrum so extensively, it’s clear that Marshall has emotionally burnt himself out. In response, Man Alive! perfectly encapsulates the feeling of emptiness one gets after a panic attack. The restless sound King Krule is known for is still there, but it has lost its objective. The result is a trip down into the mind of a man who has planted himself firmly in the world of adulthood without any real plan for what to do once he’s there.
The track “Cellular” starts the album off with a taste of the post-punk sounds many have come to love King Krule for. Greasy slide bass and dense, muddy production provide the framework for Marshall’s trademark baritone croon. “Supermaché” builds on this formula with an almost comically villainous intro. Slippery guitar lines and dusty 808 drums are just enough to keep this song from crossing a line into the world of ridiculousness.
This is not a line Marshall is afraid to cross though, as is perfectly evident in the track “Stoned Again.” Sounding like a mix between a Show Me the Body B-side and Ween’s The Mollusk, “Stoned Again” urges us to laugh along, even at the expense of its creators’ addictions. Marshall bellowing that he’s “high again, boy!” comes across less as a cry for help and more as a bit of self-deprecating humor. All his life Marshall has been singing about his troubles, and all his life the troubles have stayed with him. It’s like he’s saying that if he’s gone this long without answers, he might as well stop taking himself so seriously and laugh a little. Unfortunately, the laughter that follows won’t last forever.
The song “Alone, Omen 3” marks a turning point in the emotional course of the album. The same blocky drumming and dissonant guitars that we’ve heard up until this point remain, but Marshall’s vocals take on a much more submissive, sing-song quality. One of the most notable singles leading up to the release, “Alone, Omen 3” provides a bridge into the valley of subdued emotions to come. Songs such as “Perfecto Miserable” and “(Don’t Let The Dragon) Draag On” epitomize this sound. Dissonant chords strummed quietly over smoky vocals set a scene like no other. Only King Krule could so perfectly capture the sounds of sitting alone on a rainy day, thinking about someone you wish would come back.
All of these tracks culminate in one of the most beautifully arranged songs in the King Krule discography, “Theme For The Cross.” This song is what the bulk of The Ooz wishes it was. However, where The Ooz sought to create power through density, “Theme For The Cross” does so through delicacy.The layers to the production are thin and tasteful. After opening with an eerie reversed-sounding synth line, Marshall’s spoken word and lone piano steal the show with one of his most subtly expressive performances since “Baby Blue.”
It’s easy to ride out the length of the album on the coattails of songs like “Theme For The Cross,” but that’s not to say everything is perfect. Throughout the record, you may find yourself glazing over tracks or wondering if what you are listening to is an outro or a whole new piece. “Comet Face,” “The Dream,” and “Energy Fleets” all feel as if they were ideas meant to be choruses or bridges that got stretched into a full-length track. Never are the songs so bad that they actively take away from the experience, they just seem like they serve only to stretch it out. I could definitely see Man Alive! being improved by being whittled down to 10 or 11 songs, as opposed to the 14 that it currently consists of.
The entirety of this album can be summarized by the mantra repeated through its solemn, questioning closer. “Everything just seems to be numbness around.” Having been forced to grow up like the rest of us, King Krule has put together his most mature album to date, even if that comes at the cost of his youthful sense of hope. Where Archy Marshall previously sought answers, he now asks questions, and the feeling of emptiness this brings is simultaneously hilarious and unbearable. Man Alive! embodies the perils of numbness better than any album I’ve heard in recent memory. Whether you chose to laugh or cry in the face of this peril is up to you.