For many, particularly those introduced to his work through 2013’s 6 Feet Beneath the Moon, the first enthralling thing about Archie Marshall was his cascading, reverb-drenched, virtuoso guitar playing. For me, who met Marshall on 2017’s still-not-quite-fathomable The Ooz, it was his voice. Marshall’s vocals are a fat slab of meat — pre-tobacco Tom Waits maybe, or some formant-shifted, overdriven, lounge-jazz belter, or a coyote howl run through a chorus pedal. He enunciates like Vito Corleone. He bellows like a trumpet played through a wah-wah mute. The effect was multiplied a hundred fold when I found a video of Archie performing live on YouTube. It is simply too absurd that this scrawny, thick lens, to-go-size Ron Weasley is the same being as the primordial vocal force that haunts The Ooz. It’s like Sauran stuffed into the frame of Radagast the Brown.
The Ooz ended up being one of my favorite albums of 2017, and I’ve spent the years since tiptoeing through its scorched purgatory of a tracklist and backtracking through Marshall’s earlier discography. Though I’ve never loved 6 Feet Beneath the Moon, I’m fascinated by the skittering trip-hop of A New Place to Drown, and some of the early sketches released under the Zoo Kid moniker capture a piece of the same burnt-out anguish that makes The Ooz so compelling for me.
Man, Alive! mostly shares its genre-bending pallet with its predecessor – throttling post punk, abstract jazz-fusion, mind-bending neo-psychedelia, and transporting sound collage. The impeccable production featured on every Marshall project since A New Place to Drown is here as well. It’s King Krule’s familiar musical world — a greyed-out 2D cavern of cement and shrieking saxophone. However, despite the familiar sonic territory, I find Man, Alive! quite a bit more direct than The Ooz. Indeed, I think Marshall’s newest project is his most accessible since 6 Feet, though it’s odd to call any music this deeply troubling “accessible.”
The album opens with the single “Cellular,” a piece of remarkably punchy post-punk. Swirling synth and guitar arpeggios pull us through a kind of wormhole and drop us off in a world of sequenced drums, distorted bass, and Marshall’s distant, flat voice. King Krule’s lyrics are not usually a huge draw for me, but on “Cellular,” Marshall delivers a piece of truly surreal poetry. As the song builds, through marching, metallic snare hits, dizzying FX, and delayed guitar, Marshall muses on living in our completely news-saturated world – “There’s a massacre across the ocean, I can see it in the palm of my hand.” I’ve been listening to this record a lot since we all moved inside to the isolated life of quarantine, and lines like “Abandoned to the voice in my head” hit different lately. The back half of the song crescendos into a beautiful, transcendent, cathartic release of screaming saxophone played by frequent King Krule contributor Ignacio Salvadores. “Cellular” is an essential song for 2020, and one of the most beautiful of Marshall’s career.
That beauty does not last. The following two tracks, “Supermarché” and “Stoned Again” are ugly, shouted post-punk, featuring strained guitar leads, pummeling distorted base, off-kilter drum grooves, and Marshall screaming his brains out. “Stoned Again” in particular features one of the most painful vocal performances in King Krule’s discography – wild, yelpy background embellishments, and a monstrous howling chorus that threatens to fully rip apart. The song is truly crushing – a winding, depressing descent into Marshall’s psyche. The record does not let up. “Comet Face” is much tighter and less-shouty than its predecessors, but it’s just as unsettling. The groove is rushed, and a series of whooshing effects, atonal saxophone, and sped up vocal samples assault and eventually overwhelm the track, leaving a fully washed out Marshall singing “A waste of time. A waste of time. A waste of time” over and over, amidst a wall of noise.
By this point, having fully established the tattered, violent bounds of Marshall’s psyche, the album collapses into a soupy lull. The reprieve is welcome, and Marshall’s jazzy chord progressions are as haunting as ever, but tracks like “Perfecto Miserable,” “Airport Antenatal Airplane,” and “(Don’t Let the Dragon) Draag On” feel like paler imitations of The Ooz’s dripping, unmoored, sound-collage spaciness. This is particularly frustrating because the album’s first leg displays such clear evolution in Marshall’s sound. In these later tracks he seems to be fighting against his own growth, and the results are underwhelming.
That is not to say that the middle leg of the album lacks highlights. On “Alone, Omen 3,” sweet chords and a spinning groove descend into what sounds like a reprise of the distorted back-half of “Stoned Again.” “Slinky” sounds like a 6 Feet Under the Moon song with the more sophisticated sound design of Marshall’s recent work. The soft instrumental swells of “Theme for the Cross” are painfully sweet amidst the jagged edges of the rest of the album. By the end of the song, Marshall’s sound collage reaches its most touching and cinematic — he paints solitude with passing cars and lonely piano. Perhaps I am projecting my own 2020 experience, but this song feels like one of the most isolated and lonely pieces Marshall has ever recorded.
It also transitions us into the album’s sweet, tragic, final act. “Underclass” is a beautiful, trudging ballad, and the most straightforwardly vocal jazz song on the album. The quiet smokiness reminds me of Tom Waits’ Alice. Here, and on the following two songs, Marshall’s vocals feature less of his usual booming bass. He opts instead for a slightly thinner, higher tambor. The effect is more intimate — he sounds unusually vulnerable, which allows the lyrics room to cut deeper. The intimacy also makes the crescendoing breakdown of “Energy Fleets” more impactful than similar moments earlier in the album.
Album closer “Please Complete Thee” is an incredibly dark, spacy piece of droning ambient synths, sax, and delayed guitar — it may be the album’s saddest, soupiest cut. However, in its final section the song opens into one of the most bemusing moments of Marshall’s discography – a warm passage of glittering guitars and synths. It sounds, shocking as it may be for King Krule fans, happy. I’m not sure what to make of this bizarrely uplifting closer. At first I took it as a kind of cynical irony – juxtaposed with more than 40 minutes of soul-crushing dystopia, the passage is supposed to look naive. However, in recent months I’ve rethought that interpretation. It seems significant that the album is bookended by “Cellular” and “Please Complete Thee,” two songs with gorgeous, angelic finishes. Perhaps, after two records of drowning in ooze, Archy Marshall has found some place to moore, and he’s bringing his listeners along. Maybe 2020 has taught us to cling to anything remotely joyous, but I’ve come to believe that Marshall is being genuine here, that he is communicating something truly hopeful. That hope makes Man, Alive! an essential addition to King Krule’s discography, and though it does not always meet the high bar set by The Ooz, it is a joy to hear Marshall continue to experiment and evolve.