King Krule’s prime directive is creating a sea of mood through dark, dream-like instrumentals and spat, distressed vocal performances. Born Archy Ivan Marshall, the English musician made a career in something between garage-band punk and New York jazz. With abstract, moody cover art and song titles such as “Perfecto Miserable,” the expectation is a murky, maybe even volatile aesthetic. “Man Alive!,” at the very least, delivers on this premise.
The album feels like black and gray watercolors, and it doesn’t depart from this for the majority of its runtime. From the jump, the atmosphere threatens to smother the listener. The absolute spiritlessness and isolation on the tracks allow anything delivered with energy and aggression to feel cathartic, and the contrast doubles the punch. “Man Alive!” is a self-induced coma you emerge from feeling either relieved or distraught. Marshall is offering simple emotions behind complicated sounds, but neither the sounds nor emotions are too much. The songwriting doesn’t delve into the reasoning or causation behind its themes of depression and isolation, just as the arpeggiated guitars and droning synths don’t wander too far from what’s expected. It’s that strange ability of Marshall’s to get you comfortable in the pocket of an uncomfortable mood which makes the music on this album so intoxicating.
Instrumentally, Marshall is not doing much overtly new or experimental, at least regarding his own sound. However, he’s not retracing old steps as he mostly sticks to his guns on “Man Alive!” This is not really a complaint because he tries new things with old tools, and the result is largely satisfying. When the tracks are stripped back, the fewer moving parts draw you in. When he offers a wave of sound, it’s hard not to lose yourself in it. What catches the ear most strongly is perhaps the horns which lie just below the surface on tracks like “Cellular.” They’re not there to prop up the instrumental or even to complement it, but they simply glide in almost inaudibly and, much like the plethora of other odd sounds tossed in, disappear as quickly as they came. Bits of production sound something like an homage to Pink Floyd’s 1979 album “The Wall,” with canned sounds and vocal samples floating throughout the mix.
The album steps off on the right foot with “Cellular,” a song about mourning lost love, and punctuates each small feeling with an ample groove. The swing draws you in, but the mantra-laden outro is what hypnotizes the listener, allowing the following tracks to sink their teeth in as the album progresses. Following soon after is “Stoned Again,” which is as close as we get to punk-jazz on this album. The cut is heavy enough to feel but ethereal enough that it doesn’t interrupt the vibe of what comes before. The single “(Don’t Let The Dragon) Draag On” was, in retrospect, an entirely reasonable taste of what this album would bring as it’s a song to which you can either choose to sleep or think. With small exception, either choice is valid for the majority of the tracks on “Man Alive!” The penultimate track, “Energy Fleets,” offers a satisfying culmination, both insularly and in the context of the album as a whole.
The failings of the album lie primarily in the bits that offer too little. Somewhat consistently, tracks such as “The Dream” and “Perfecto Miserable” do little more than continue the album’s vibe, only on autopilot and lacking in anything compelling. As mentioned earlier, the hard-hitting elements of any song strike much harder when contrasted against the sprawling apathy of the surrounding track. Unfortunately, Marshall is far too conservative with these moments. There are stretches of the album that feel like too much catch and not enough release. “Man Alive!” does a fine job establishing its atmosphere, but a lackluster job moving anywhere with it. If the production took any page from Pink Floyd’s book, it should have taken a page with more thematic and grander, epic elements.
If you’re looking for more of what you heard on King Krule’s earlier projects, “Man Alive!” will more than satisfy. However, this likely won’t bring in legions of new fans or find itself on any end of the year lists. For an album that was produced, conceived and performed quite well, it lacks many memorable moments.