Album Review: King Krule – Man Alive!

[XL; 2020]

Given how distressingly personal and sobering his work has become, it is more difficult than ever to refer to the lanky red-headed mastermind of depressive lo-fi guitar pop, Archy Marshall, by something as oblique as King Krule. Considering this individual has continually spilled his guts like slaughtered roadkill, referring to him as personably Archy seems more appropriate these days, and his new record Man Alive! explains why.

A pained philosopher stuck inside a 25-year-old’s body, Man Alive! paints Archy as more optimistic now—well, not fully. His fusion of jazz, hip-hop, and punk is still veiled beneath gloom and dejection, while his voice still gravels and grinds in a low hum over unresolved demons. The prematurely elected “savior of indie rock” has found a reason to push forward, without ignoring the anguishes that plague him.

Three years ago, after dropping the forlorn The Ooz—a record that was for the lack of better words, depressing—one couldn’t help but worry for Archy’s toiling mental state. But a moment of reprieve breathed life into apparent perpetual torment: during the writing of this record, Archy became a father. In fact, his daughter Marina was born almost exactly a year ago, last March. After reading all the interviews Archy has given surrounding the release of Man Alive!, there exists a sense of vitality and hope that’d be laughed off as facetious if we were observing Archy the hopeless bastard of just a few years ago. But, as many of us humans know by now, when life takes, it also gives. “When [Marina] was born, she was the biggest expression of life and love,” Marshall affectionately expressed in an interview with The Guardian

Even with new responsibilities hanging heavily on Archy’s heart, Man Alive! sees him continue to slur and spit vitriol in the face of life. Yes, Archy is still the dismal recluse we’ve grown to adore, but he’s a few shades brighter and a bit more focused on his journey through this game called life. The easily arguable detractor against The Ooz was that it felt overstuffed, which didn’t necessarily bode well with its overt sleepiness in style. Man Alive! trims the fat whilst still maintaining the tone-setting dreariness.

With the extra layer of haze now lifted, every cut from King Krule’s latest is allowed room to breathe. From beginning to end, there’s not a single miss. Each track is sequenced to perfection, is emotionally gripping, beautifully performed, and deeply felt without hesitation. Throughout his career, King Krule has proven to be a master at navigating the extremes of both abrasive anger transmitted through punk, and sedative lulls through trip-hop and experimental jazz.

The first track, “Cellular”, is a perfect encapsulation of this sonic interplay. Right off the bat, Archy drives listeners into a feeling of complete disillusion as he bemoans, staring into the television, seeing and hearing things that are completely imagined. With digital bleeps and glitches filling the cracks left wide open by a thunderous bassline, “Cellular”’s manic murkiness is made even more palpable. The album’s second track, “Supermarché” treads a similarly distraught path as a spooky, bass-driven cut that builds and balloons into an explosion of Archy’s misanthropy. However, just when the track is about to reach its boiling point, Archy pulls back into a stewing slow-burn, only for it to climax again, bludgeoning the listener over the head with abrasiveness once more.

In years past, his anger and sadness were rooted and weighed down by nihilism, but these days Archy’s distinguished disgust now comes from a place of being an angry dad with something to protect, his child, and something to protect her from, his past and the cesspool of a world she was born into.

The track “Stoned Again” harks back to Archy’s 6 Feet Beneath the Moon, where life offered him simpler times. Though these days were seemingly much easier and care-free, Archy found himself filling up on empty means of satisfaction: “I’m high again, boy / Oh, I’m stoned again / I’m stoned again / I’m low again….” Musically, “Stoned Again” explores every musical corner that the experimental behemoth has ever dabbled in—from trip and hip-hop, to no-wave, post-punk and of course, jazz. This a wonderfully frightening mix, especially when paired with Archy’s pained rasp. The song “Comet Face” further accentuates the frantic, inescapably drug-addled energy of the record thus far. With yet another killer bassline, unhinged by squirming vocal samples, listeners are once again left uneased— plunged into a world akin to a bad high: “At least my nose ain’t bent, but my brain’s fryin’ / Think they asked for a light, then they offered a line…”

Like any high from the hardest of drugs, Man Alive! experiences a very obvious come down. With hallucinations and paranoid freak-outs now in the rearview, “The Dream”, though incredibly sleepy and drab, represents a point of awakening and clarity, as he ironically urges himself to Stop making sense of things.” This acceptance of the calamities and mundanity of what life throws in the way displays him as considerably more optimistic.

You can imagine Archy lulling his daughter to sleep with a song like “Perfecto Miserable”, which seems to operate as an ode to his daughter: “Cause you’re my everything, I have no words / And you’re the only thing that makes life worth….” Whether this true or not, it seems Archy is deeply touched by the beautiful gift of life he has been given—even if life sucks ass at times.

Throughout Man Alive! it is still obvious that fears of death, depression and monotonous suffering seep through the crevices of Archy’s brain. But with external factors having altered his outlook on life he seems to be more ok with those aforementioned anxieties, just as long as he can hold those he loves close to him. With true, human conflict between happiness and sadness on full display, Man Alive! is unequivocally King Krule’s, or better yet, Archy Marshall’s most sobering work yet.