The first sounds we hear on the new record from singer-songwriter Anjimile is a cavalcade of heavenly voices. It’s a dramatic flourish of an entrance, one befitting the album’s name: The King. The eponymous song eventually transitions starkly into a bed of rapidfire guitar arpeggios and a tense sense of place, as Anjimile’s honeysuckle voice comes in, a bit more ominous than on much of his earlier work, singing about death, plague, and “the mark of Cain.” It’s an appropriately biblical tone setter for a record that is largely concerned with themes of loss, thorny parental relationships, and Black pain. Written in the wake of COVID-19’s ravaging of the world and the string of murders of unarmed black Americans, The King is grave and serious, underpinned by glints of hope and optimism that don’t forget the pain at the heart of the moment.
Anjimile’s last album Giver Taker had a warm and homespun vibe to it, even as it detailed some serious subject matter (it was written in the aftermath of his experience in rehab for alcohol addiction). It was, though, ultimately a grateful record about claiming life and making it yours. The King transitions from that idea and expands, looking outward from himself and also at the nation he calls home.
Some songs — namely the decidedly grim triptych of “Genesis”, “The Right” and “Animal” — deal directly with death, injustice, and the loss of innocent black lives. Those three specifically were written after George Floyd’s life was snuffed out at the hands of four Minneapolis police officers in 2020. Though the subject matter is tough, the intensity never makes the songs hard to hear, mostly because Anjimile is so adept at crafting lovely guitar-based soundscapes, and is usually singing in his fluttering voice. “Genesis” is especially touching, with the metallic stabs of noise and plinking music-box tones, as he sings lines like “I don’t want to be dead yet.” His voice sometimes hinges on overly theatrical, as on songs like the clangorous “Black Hole” or the swaying “Anybody”, but it is always a very pretty instrument that has been refined and sharpened well over the years. There’s more depth and gravity to his delivery than on Giver Taker, and the album is better for it.
The album centers almost entirely upon his voice and guitar, though you may not always realize it. Apart from some string or keyboard sections here and there, practically every instrumental sound is his guitar, whether nakedly spare as on “Father”, or brittle and unrecognizable as on the title track, where it sounds like a haunted harpsichord or marxophone. The clever effects placed on his guitar keep each song feeling distinct while also never abandoning the comfort zone he resides in; it’s a clever way of building a more dense and intricate soundscape without actually needing a dozen extra players in the room. On some songs, like on the haunting and plodding “Harley”, the guitar sounds heavy and watery, almost marsh-like in its webbing decay. On others, like “Anybody”, it’s light and airy, his voice pirouetting over it like Ari Picker of Lost in the Trees.
The King is an impressive step up from the small-scale ruminations of Anjimile’s debut, utilizing his instrument in inventive and beguiling ways (just what is ambient soup of “I Pray” actually made of?!).The King is full of voices, both his own and those of the ones he sings about and for, and that communion is one of the album’s biggest strengths. It does maintain some habits that threaten to curdle the gravity of his songs into preciousness or melodrama, like his quivering vibrato and theatrical mannerisms (at times, the songs almost sound like folky musical theatre numbers). But, overall, these nitpicked conflicts don’t negate the sheer power of what Anjimile has constructed here.