Abandoned To The Voice In My Head: King Krule’s Man Alive!

on XL Recordings/Matador Records
Reviewed by Henry Cherry

Archy Ivan Marshall is a 25-year-old musician who performs under the nom de guerre King Krule. As Krule, he has delivered a stunning portrait of demonic exorcism across three full length releases and as many extended plays. As Archy Marshall, he’s added a book and another album, both featuring his brother, Jack.

In a universe devoid of the weary and multitudinous musical classification system, people would immediately recognize the emotional content of the Krule/Marshall output and stamp it as such. Within the varied categorization that has been embraced by those seeking to brand themselves with the musical ideologies of others as a lifestyle choice, defining King Krule as Emo is still a contextual misstep. His is the sound of an ambling internal, but revolutionary discord.And, it might not solely be about the music. His words, strung together across all of his releases, establish a rhapsodic manifesto that marks the passage from dysfunction to success without aiding the marketing hijinks of outsized music companies obsessively monetizing and formally (habitually, even) structuring the music they issue. Marshall is as lyrically poetic and incising as Public Enemy or Bruce Springsteen, but where those musicians stood solidly on the mantle of genre, Archy Marshall’s abandonment of classification rests within his core. In this era of traveling lethal viruses and internet hacked elections, that one singular voice can so broadly deliver universal identity through such solitary emotionalism is worth reckoning.

Filled with found sounds, altered tape loops, plaintive jazz guitar chords and a tantrum of drum beats and synthesized noises, Man Alive! is incandescently structureless. Here more than any other Krule/Marshall release, the music doesn’t constitute a song-by-song album much as it establishes an experiential concourse for listeners to drift across.

The collection takes its cues from all of Marshall’s previous recordings, dating back to his first issue in 2011 as Zoo Kid. However, the amorphousness found here redistributes a lot of Krule’s stylistic choices. The bright chiming guitars on his 2013 album, 6 Feet Beneath the Moon, have gotten murkier, as have the vocals. Now they weave into a song where before, guitar and voice sliced through them. Make no mistake, this is still King Krule. He hasn’t abandoned his aural charter. He’s diversified it. He’s layered it with canonical additions, like the saxophone of Ignacio Salvadores, a galactic incorporation. No other sound is as poignant, or better positioned, outside of Marshall’s own vocals, throughout this recording.

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Now that Marshall is partnered and a co-parent, the internal maelstroms on previous King Krule outings have been blunted. Perhaps amended is a better way to put it. Songs like “Sweet and Sour” and the magisterial pop of the album’s opener, “Cellular,” stride with a rabid adherence to an outsider’s mindset without sacrificing Marshall’s new, fleet footed exuberance. This new music, his first issued as a family-man, flies into chaos differently than past outings that patterned the caterwaul with aggressive vocalization. On Man Alive! that voice still appears, but it is the flurry of the constant musical repositioning that brings the noise now. This refreshed melodic calculus links more definitively to his words than to the music, making this sound explicitly unique to King Krule. It snakes in and out of time signatures and adopts Marshall’s specific phrasing. Not lost of time and space, but not forced by them, either. This is tricky work, so there is a bit of art for art’s sake-ness to the album. It’s not for everyone. This February, the first critic the Guardian assigned to review Man Alive! initially awarded it two stars out of five. That caused a ruckus. Days later a new review appeared, this time anointing the record four out of five Guardian stars, while calling Marshall, “happier, lighter” and the album “stirring.”

At first listen, outside of the insouciant bubbles of the opening song, Man Alive! is a shadowy and nomadic, sort of like the experience of diving into the first page of a Faulkner novel for a literary novice. Without sign posts indicating which way is up, the journey can be ambiguous and mystifying. But that’s why you compare a pop record to Faulkner: the mystification is the merit, the tunnel is the delight.

As such, songs blurrily segue from one to another. “Supermarché,” the second track on Man Alive!, never really ends, it just mutates into the next one, “Stoned Again,” as someone speaks the line, “Ha, ha, fuck all that man.” The manipulation that resides in the lyrics of both songs reinforces their symbiotic relationship. This opacity returns throughout the album. It’s part of the charm, but it also operates as a sort of codex, or key. It lets you step the whole-way in.

More than anything, more than the literariness, the allusions to musical forebears, this is a comprehensive artistic portrayal of a young man’s victory over difficult internal struggles, track by exploratory track. It collides years of Marshall’s personal confrontations with his growing musical ideology. Irate at the concept of school, Marshall continually sought out therapy through music. “I’ve got rid of a lot of cynicism and anger,” he told an interviewer in 2013. “I feel positive about my development, and I just want to carry on making music and building myself as a person.” Seven years later, Marshall told Paper Magazine about being a new father, “A few people have said that, with the state of the world, it must be scary bringing someone into it, but I see this energy, this love, this thing inside of her that I think will really benefit this planet.”

Having referenced his own genius in past interviews and dogged Beyonce’s social media promotion of his earlier work, Marshall fully owns his musical kinesis. Rather than work with Kanye West, who approached him early on, Marshall stuck with his own creations, not out of any perceived dislike of West but because he didn’t know how to make it work, telling the New York Times in 2017, “I like the physicality of living with someone, sleeping next to them, eating with them. And eventually we might make a tune.”

That immersiveness striates everything on Man Alive!, every beat, every lyric, every sound. Songs dressed in an elemental gauziness later engorge themselves on advanced poetics, while sinewy guitars chord out aortic chambers. Lyrics fold with origami like introspection, their finely deliberate confidence ushering Krule onto new plateaus. While the ethereal dub of “(Don’t Let the Dragon) Draag On” spirals without hurry to its close, Krule’s down-tuned voice contemplates sorrow, impermanence, and celestial absurdity.

How many hits can one bum take
How many things can one boy make
I wrap myself inside my duvet
You think those blue giants feel the same
You think they ever have these days
You think they ever have these days

Shifting from depression to astronomy isn’t a new thing, but this is a decidedly sophisticated take, more literary than rhyming dictionary.

Note, this is not a simple collage, or just a rock and roll record, though it rocks in places, often in mid collage. Marshall gathers his anthemic inclinations and scatters them throughout. It is in these rising moments and their eventual collapse that the devastating power of Man Alive! racks into focus. All of this gear-shifting would grind to a distracting halt in someone else’s hands. Honestly, in someone else’s hands, the music that quilts Marshall’s poetics would be relegated to acoustic guitar strums. Instead, seeded within the close-packed music is something critic/guitarist Lenny Kaye referenced as, “spectral community alchemy.” Where Kaye was referencing sixties counter-culture, Krule filters his spectral alchemic achievements through his new familial existence. It’s a more personalized community and that’s what makes it so pervasive, so blanketing.

It wouldn’t be a Krule affair without the darkened sentiment of compulsive depression. Here, he takes the last track, “Please Complete Thee,” an off-kilter dub infused jar of molasses to balance the album’s most depressive point.

Now days and nights
Have been constantly letting me down
This place doesn’t move me
Everything just seems to be numbness or else
This place doesn’t move me
Everything just constantly letting me down
Down
Please complete me

It’s a daring position to be in, admitting that the absence of hope still persists while closing out the most hopeful recording of his career.

Nestled deep within Man Alive! is an enigmatic pastiche of saxophone, backward filtered sounds and speed altered piano called “Theme for the Cross.” As the trembling piano wobbles along with him, Marshall delivers an altered vision of both salvation and demolition. It’s the same dualistic emotionalism he’s embraced throughout his career. Here, he’s doused it with a maturity that tempers his anger with awe.

The sky was open and gorgeous
The blue was a view but was tortured
Chem-trails poke holes through commuters
Swept sweat we went to find water
Tin can flew off to New York
The TV had said that you ought to
The same show protested the order
From fifty-foot cigs blowing smoke across the border
To men who’d drowned holding their daughters
And weren’t allowed refuge from the horrors
The instruction was mutual borders
I ain’t felt this world and its orbit
Haven’t felt this world and its orbit
TV runs the show’s creds and goes dead
Now it’s time to climb bed and be well-slept

Sometimes I watch the TV in my head
Sometimes I watch the TV in my head

This is the template for Marshall’s stylistic reconstruction. It owes as much to Gavin Byars as it does to dub or no wave or whatever other influence pinned to King Krule. But Marshall never robs Byars to pay himself. It’s inclusionary and adaptive, rather than plagiaristic or misappropriated.

Man Alive!’s ambience, it’s aural identity draws all the way back to 2015 and A New Place 2 Drown, Marshall’s sole outing under his given name, a recording that prominently features his brother. So it comes as no surprise this release, like that one, is a family affair. Marshall’s father, brother, uncle and the mother of his child all receive credit in the Man Alive! liner notes. And while Marshall has left the teenage wunderkind-ness behind, he has also managed to carve a valley of appreciation into the sometimes lush, sometimes stark, sometimes melancholic mountain range he’s traversing.

Any review of Man Alive! is insufficient without mention of its promotional fifteen-minute video, released in November 2019. The lo-fi video collects desolate and personal takes of three songs that appear on the new release. Presented in washed out, pixelated shorts and staged before a nuclear power plant, an empty autumnal beach, and a gilded sunset, Hey World! is an indelible companion piece. It is sanguine for sure, but also somehow affirming because, as a marketing strategy, the promo-vid has sidestepped advertising completely in favor of art. At the video’s end, Marshall plucks out the song “Energy Fleets” on his Fender, his slender fingerings displaying a fragility as complex as he is. As the reverb punctuates the end, an off-camera light that shines onto Marshall switches off, leaving him silhouetted against the dramatic setting sun. These songs, then are silhouettes of themselves. What happened in between is the magic of formulation.

Man Alive! is Marshall’s Sandinista!, his Bitches Brew. But it is also his Sonnets, his Lawrence of Arabia, his drip painting breakthrough. Because it is a watershed moment, take it as a whole. Some selections might seem appropriate for single use settings. Don’t let that confuse your decision. This is the body of change. Bathe in its bounty.

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RIOT MATERIAL is LA’s premier literary-cultural magazine with an eye on art, word, and forward-aiming thought. Check out our gallery on IG: @ riotmaterial.

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