Initially receiving praise and a fanbase for 6 Feet Beneath the Moon in 2013, Marshall’s blend of darkwave, jazz chords, trip hop, and punk vocals tackled themes of romance and sex, aggression and depression and occupied a space that was one half Chet Baker and the other Joe Strummer. He one upped himself with 2017’s The Ooz, the atmospheric world building album that combined trip hop with post punk. Man Alive! feels like a digression missing the cohesive rhythm and singular language that solidified King Krule as a sonic force on the dying rock landscape.
Krule is now 25, still in a formative stage of his life and with a new born daughter. Many great musicians after a career of musing hedonism, binging and inebriation will amerce themselves in the newfound wonder of domesticity and parenthood and Man Alive! has been labelled by many as King Krule’s “settling down” record. Halfway through recording Marshall learned his girlfriend Charlotte Patmore was pregnant, but rather than expanding on his sound in the face of impending mature adulthood, Archy dissipates into low stakes and proceeds to sound even more bored. It strives to capture the change from his habitual boozing as a South London creative to moving to Northern Britain in the impending face of maturity. Though to clarify, Man Alive’s writing process still saw Krule treading water in a dystopian vision of South London.
While “Cellular” and its animated video released just days before signalled a continuation of The Ooz, “Man Alive” is more accurately billed as “The Trench” in that it slouches below ground and dies there. He opens the album with, “There’s a television speaking to me..” and Man Alive! is built off this disconnect between artist and real world.
On second listen am I compelled to listen to this again? Well it depends on lack of sleep and how poorly things in my personal life are going, which would have to be pretty dire to justify a third.
Unfortunately it seems Marshall has misplaced the ambition of 6 feet and/or the vigorous agitation of “Dum Surfer” or “CzechOne”. The meticulous production and pulse of The Ooz arises rarely, almost necessarily on “Alone, Omen 3” and the explosive “Comet Face”. “Underclass” thankfully ditches the abstract angle and makes use of a horn section and direly needed melodic overtness yielding the album’s best track and closest thing to traditional song structure.
But for the most part, Man Alive! takes an ambien into a haze of messy paranoia, chastising of the middle class, and self deprecation.
It is anguish without closure, buildup without payoff, bleakness without the reward of invigoration. Like everything that came before it, it remains impressionistic but not engaging and worst of all lacking focus. Love songs are painted as contradictory and impending fatherhood is painted as putridity. Here he’s migrated from alienated genius to full on martyrdom. “Clinical depression season is upon us, lads.”
Don’t get me wrong, Marshall’s music has always carried a foggy sense of sombreness, but Man Alive! is missing the movement that pushes past the obliqueness and makes these songs more than just strange mood pieces. It is gray, drab, and dissonant.
At times King Krule’s subversiveness and misanthrope persona can equal progressive music, but what we get mostly here is flat out toneless muck. “Supermarche” which to the detriment of the album is positioned as the second song and is nearly unlistenable with Marshall incoherently slobbering his vocal lines against a pounding one note groove. “Theme for the Cross” featuring breathy mumbled lines over minimal piano is barely a song at all. Let’s not forget this is a 14 track album with maybe 5 redeemable songs.
It’s missing so much colour that a simple chord on his signature Fender result in much needed lapses from ambient noise and nonsensical rhythms. Marshall plays nearly everything instrument here and unlike DIY albums like recently released efforts by Tame Impala and Grimes, everything here sounds the same, but it’s an overall lack of melody and momentum that plague the listener’s enjoyability and seem to conceal the talents of its artist.
Hopefully Man Alive! marks a moment of transition caught between youthful angst and the monotony of adulthood. Here's to hoping to reach something of more substance upon his next release, but for now it’s just a few good tracks wedged between indecipherable experiments. For someone who deeply understands irony, enigma, and pessimism in the voice of a smart cynic, Man Alive! is too underwhelming to celebrate.