It’s hard not to be pulled into the dark depths of despair that King Krule’s Archy Marshall contemplates in his most recent studio album, Man Alive!. His voice is distinctive, not just in its low-tone grumbles and elongated vowel sounds, but also in its subject matter. Feelings of anguish and drowning recur in all of Marshall’s work since 2010 and this most recent endeavour is no different.
The 25-year-old south Londoner still reeling from the success of his 2017 Mercury Prize nominated album, The OOZ, chooses to maintain and build upon his well-established style in Man Alive!. The album is hard to describe in generic terms, slipping between definitions and drawing upon a whole host of musical modes, from jazz and punk to dub and soul. It is this sense of ‘slipping’ – or the in-between – which features most in Marshall’s work. Whether explicitly drawing listeners’ attention to this fluid state with track titles such as ‘Slinky’, or through imperative instructions like in ‘Alone, Omen 3’’s opening phrase, ‘Take a dip,’ Marshall feels no need to be bound by constraints of any kind.
The album is bookended by two songs, ‘Cellular’ and ‘Please Complete Thee’, which underline Marshall's main concerns: loss and a fear of loneliness. There’s a sense that Marshall is disorientated and attempting to escape from his own anxieties as the tracks are inherently lofty and ambient, almost surreal at times. The large majority of tracks are intercut by strange and ominous sounds which create an undertone of distress and upset Marshall’s wavelengths. This is by no means a bad thing as these musical embellishments always remind you of the introspective and despondent world that King Krule encapsulates. Marshall calls out for a grounding force as the final track ends with the lines ‘Girl / Please complete me’.
Highlights of Man Alive! include the interlude ‘The Dream’ and the alliterative track, ‘Airport Antenatal Airplane’. ‘The Dream’ has a particularly appealing bass line which resonates throughout the entire song, accompanying Marshall’s retreat into his head, while ‘Airport Antenatal Airplane’ takes on an autobiographical and meditative purpose as notably, half-way through recording this album, Marshall – on a flight from New York to London Heathrow – found out that his partner Charlotte Patmore was pregnant. The track grapples with his own emerging paternal responsibility and the sense of balance this might bring to Marshall’s life: ‘I start my journey to and fro / Passport in my pocket’s getting old / Feel the weight of the world dissolve’.
Social and political concerns appear to be another theme playing on Marshall’s mind, giving rise to the gloom and melancholic tone of the album. Several tracks draw attention to the current state of the world such as ‘Cellular’ where, in his typical poetic fashion, Marshall flippantly sings: ‘There’s a massacre / Across the o-, across the o- / Across the ocean’. The fashioned-stutter that materialises from the repeated and incomplete ‘o-‘ points to feelings of disbelief and hopelessness. Likewise, ‘Underclass’ deals with issues of class as Marshall refers to being ‘Under the underclass’ in a song peppered with saxophone solos.
Man Alive! is without question a feat of musical achievement for King Krule; it builds upon the previous three albums and is as raw as ever. Though still left wandering and somewhat isolated, Marshall remains afloat in his aquatic world, leaving the listener with some sense of hope.