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King Krule's Man Alive! Is Another Bleak, Inspired Chapter in His Discography

The visionary young Brit has come out with a densely-layered and largely excellent album that effectively showcases his emotional state.

Originally published on 2/28/20.

Archy Marshall has been releasing music for a decade now. In 2010, the then 15-year-old Londoner first began putting his music on the Internet under the name Zoo Kid, music that largely consisted of just him and a guitar. Since then, he has gained a significant following, made his national television debut at just 19, and released various projects under numerous monikers, the most well-known and celebrated of which is easily King Krule.

Over the past ten years, it has been fascinating to see Marshall’s metamorphosis as an artist and songwriter; his early material showcased a very young talent who could write and perform strong indie rock tunes with the few resources he had. However, as the years have gone by and his profile has risen, his output has become much more sonically detailed and dreary. Marshall has really come into his own with his unique sound, a blend of indie rock, jazz, post-punk, and occasional tinges of hip-hop. One of the most notable aspects of his music, though, is his one-of-a-kind voice. Ever since he started putting out music as a teenager, his rough, striking, heavily British baritone has stuck out on the indie music scene, a cadence that frequently gives way to his signature larynx-shredding howls. His voice is among the most distinctive you’re likely to find in modern rock music. Anyone unfamiliar with King Krule will be very surprised if they look up a picture of him; who would ever have guessed that that booming voice would be coming out of such a tiny, lanky body?

Marshall’s last release, the sprawling 2017 epic The OOZ, is an endlessly listenable, compelling, and honest depiction of Marshall’s struggles with depression, spurred on by the dense production and creative musical arrangements throughout its hour-plus runtime. His third album Man Alive! is a continuation of this more recent shift in style, though with somewhat less focus on jazz and electronic instrumentation than The OOZ. King Krule’s music over the past few years has taken a much more despondent tone – a far cry from the jazz-infused, sometimes chaotic indie rock of 2013’s 6 Feet Beneath the Moon – and Man Alive! continues that streak. Lo-fi production, pitch-bent synths, and smoky guitars float around Marshall’s deep voice. If there’s music out there that more vividly paints the picture of walking through the rainy streets of London during a depressive episode, I haven’t found it.

The lyrics on Man Alive! are largely more of the same from Marshall: poetic themes of emotional turmoil, anxiety, love, and city life. However, the track “Alone, Omen 3” – one of his best songs to date – offers a message that is rarely, if ever, heard in Marshall’s music: one of hope. The lyrics depict the comforting of a significant other (probably his real-life partner and occasional collaborator Charlotte Patmore) through their sadness. The placing of this song with the previous track, “Perfecto Miserable,” though, showcases perhaps the album’s most emotionally potent moment. The lyrics of that track portray an extreme dependency on a lover, and how without that lover, their depression would completely consume them. The juxtaposition of this song with “Alone, Omen 3” seems to be intentional; it shows Marshall being both vulnerable and a comforter within this relationship, a dichotomy that speaks volumes.

Unfortunately, despite having less than two-thirds of The OOZ’s runtime, the songs on Man Alive! don’t come together as well as they did on the previous album. The second half of the album is not as memorable as the first; from a songwriting point of view, some of these tracks just aren’t that interesting. They’re not necessarily bad songs; on the contrary, these tracks fit in quite well sonically and thematically with the rest of the album, and they do have some genuinely intriguing twists to them. Regardless, they aren’t particularly memorable as pieces of music, and end up conveying more of a fleeting vibe than anything else. Songs like “Airport Antenatal Airplane,” “(Don’t Let the Dragon) Draag On,” and “Theme for the Cross” in particular just don’t stick in the brain as much as most of the other tracks on Man Alive!.

Yet despite these shortfalls, some of his best, most potent material to date is on this album, with tracks like “Cellular,” “Stoned Again,” and the previously-mentioned inseparable duo of “Perfecto Miserable” and “Alone, Omen 3” being real standouts; these songs are all fantastic examples of Marshall’s songwriting abilities. The best, most memorable track on the second half of this album is “Energy Fleets,” probably the record’s most disturbing moment. The lyrics on this track seem to depict a psychotic breakdown, a theme accentuated by the genuinely unsettling, almost circus-like waltz of the instrumentation and the repeated monotone singing of “such a funny life” that morph into those always-harrowing King Krulian yowls. Meanwhile, the next track and closer “Please Complete Thee” feels like the aftermath, but gets nowhere close to a recovery. Dreary synths, forlorn vocals, and muffled percussion eventually give way to sickly slide-guitars and twinkling, Terry Riley-like synths that bring the album to a sudden and fascinating close.

Overall, Man Alive! is yet another strong release from Archy Marshall’s best-known music project, containing some of the English singer-songwriter’s best songs yet. While it doesn’t reach the high bar that The OOZ set, and it’s not quite as hard-hitting or memorable as that album, it does introduce some lyrical themes new to Marshall’s music, as well as a great deal of compelling sonic and thematic material. It may not go down in history as his best project, but as a whole, it is a welcome addition to his catalog.


Listen to Man Alive! on Apple Music or Spotify below.

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