People really believe in Archy Marshall; there was jubilation when the south Londoner announced his return as King Krule back in November. The missive came via the medium of a grainy performance video titled ‘Hey World!’, filmed in the bitterly cold Cheshire countryside and showcasing four tracks from ‘Man Alive!’. The fervent online response typified just how much Marshall’s ardent followers have invested in him since his break-out success as the scratchy Zoo Kid over a decade ago.
“When the world needed him the most, he appeared,” one fan proclaimed, while another mused that the new songs “sound like the moment when the rain just stopped”. One person even dramatically declared: “When [‘Hey World!’] ends, it almost feels like there’s nothing else to listen to in the world.”
Yet ‘Man Alive!’ isn’t the bleak existential soundtrack that that comment might indicate. Marshall’s follow-up to 2017’s overly dense ‘The Ooz’ is a compelling, expressive and at times uplifting work, an impression bolstered by learning that Marshall and his partner welcomed their first daughter in March 2019, when the recording of the album was well underway.
While it’s been widely noted that ‘Man Alive!’ is primarily “a pre-document of fatherhood”, it’s also influenced by Marshall’s decision to split his time between Cheshire and his beloved south London. The move, coupled with parenthood, has given him a fresh perspective. “I see a beauty in everything that I knew was always there, but I can understand it a lot more now,” he said recently.
The 25-year-old’s renowned versatility — his expansive soundscape often blending jazz, no wave, post-punk, hip-hop and a whole host of other diverse sounds — is flexed throughout the album. The opening one-two punch of ‘Cellular’ and ‘Supermarché’, which share lurking bass, saxophone squalls and Marshall’s snarls, is offset by the gentler lullaby-like pairing of ‘The Dream’ and ‘Perfecto Miserable’. The former is built on the kind of delicate guitar and distant piano-paired instrumental that Frank Ocean might have featured on ‘Blonde’, while the latter is framed as a lonely answerphone message to someone who is Marshall’s “everything” and “the only thing that makes me feel alright”.
Some tracks, such as the mumbling, ‘Ooz’-like ‘(Don’t Let the Dragon) Draag On’, may initially pass you by. But upon each return to ‘Man Alive!’ you’ll find new moments to cherish, such as the (Sandy) Alex G-like vocals-and-guitar minimalism of ‘Slinky’ or the dreamy, Nilüfer Yanya-sampling ‘Airport Antenatal Airplane’, which has Marshall softly singing to himself on a twilight flight from JFK to Heathrow.
The record is lifted by Marshall’s knack for hazy social observations and poetic metropolitan storytelling. This peaks with the visit to Peckham Rye that’s documented in the moody punk of ‘Comet Face’, while the album’s stand-out track ‘Stoned Again’ offers vivid snapshots of Marshall’s teenage years getting, well, stoned over and over again. “Bored, another fucking junkie,” Marshall spits as his trusty sax player Ignacio Salvadores agonisingly contorts and punishes his instrument. Our narrator is expressive, paranoid and frankly terrifying in his delivery — you’ll never look at scratch cards the same way ever again: “I scratched so hard ‘cos I’m feeling fucking lucky / Boy, I’m feeling so lucky!”
King Krule’s work has previously documented his battles with depression, and ‘Man Alive!’ gives reasons to be optimistic about the future of both Marshall and his musical persona. The rolling ‘Alone, Omen 3’ puts forward a message of inner strength: “Nothing wrong in sinking low… but don’t forget you’re not alone”. Closing track ‘Please Complete Thee’ depicts a familiar sense of melancholy (“This place doesn’t move me / everything just constantly letting me down”) but its instrumental outro is the sunshine breaking through the clouds: a soaring, reverberating slide guitar ends the record on a bright and hopeful non-verbal note.
After having to navigate their way through the overlong mire that was ‘The Ooz’ (Marshall recently admitted that the record “was an exercise in being super-weird”), King Krule fans will find their hero to be far more accessible on ‘Man Alive!’. The Krulean gloom is beginning to lift and, with this newfound paternal responsibility and a more optimistic worldview in place, Marshall’s creativity is shining for all the world to see.
Release date: February 21, 2020
Record label: XL Recordings/Matador Records