King Krule, Man Alive!
08 10

King Krule Man Alive! XL Recordings

Archy Marshall’s voice is buried in seven layers of dread. His larynx is an instrument that sounds not of flesh and blood, but cast in stone. At full power, you can picture his baritone shaking the walls of the London underground. When restrained, he sounds like Death singing a lullaby. As King Krule, his music can sound like the hymns of the last remaining soul on this planet, depicting the loneliness and desperation of trying to figure it all out.

Dive into Man Alive! at your own peril. Marshall wields chaos in the palm of his hand, melding together a powerful concoction of garage rock, hip-hop, jazz and all the influences that once inspired London multi-instrumentalist Tom Vek. On first inspection, the album sounds forged in pretty much the same mould as Marshall’s classic 19-song intergalactic iliad The OOZ. Yet the leaner, meaner Man Alive! chisels the still-only-25-year-old’s singular style down to its most focused form. The result is a collection of doomed compositions that push that distinctive voice front and centre. This is soul music – that is, music for marching souls off to Hades.

Future historians will find it almost impossible to place Marshall’s music in a specific time period. Though you could broadly cast him as a rock artist, his arrangements are extremely rough around the edges, with a home-recorded feel that doesn’t adhere to any identifiable trend. Man Alive! is as rickety as an old wagon on wooden wheels. The bass is turned way up – and I mean way up – and the guitars are tweaked with little care for traditional timing. It creates a tension that Marshall thrives in.

Take opening track Cellular: the swirling, inexpensive electronics could almost be the sound of over-the-air broadcast signals as a spaced-out Marshall finds himself enthralled by a French woman on his TV screen. Shifting his focus to his more hi-tech mobile phone – and the power it grants him to witness global massacres “in the palm of my hand” – the song is reminiscent of Thundercat’s Bus in These Streets. (Remember how the LA funk bohemian unpacked the corrosive nature of smartphones? “From the minute I wake up I’m staring at the screen/ Watching the world go insane.”) But Marshall’s analogue orchestration runs counter to the slickness of an iPhone, reminding us of the possibilities and dangers of this sci-fi technology.

There are other muscular moments – the propulsive Comet Face features some very avant-garde brass work reminiscent of Bowie in Berlin. Yet Man Alive! is often at its most enthralling when Marshall slips into a more surly, jazz-noir style. Underglass has an underground venue at midnight feeling, with gentle horns complementing the lazily strummed guitars and Marshall’s passionate vocal performance. Perfecto Miserable sounds like a love story being played out in the imagination of a lonely man. And although it’s not clear if he’s using audio manipulation software on (Don’t Let the Dragon) Draag On, his voice is tuned so low, Marshall almost sounds like Frank Ocean when he slows his voice to a crawl by screwing with the speed of the recording.

Among the highlights, Man Alive! features one of King Krule’s greatest ever songs. Stoned Again catches him in a drugged-out frenzy. The bass-heavy drum beat pulls influence from antique trip-hop as Marshall screams, screeches, gyrates. A lot of songs capture substances in a lot of different ways but Marshall gives us the height of a bad trip. It’s an encapsulation of his singular style – the vocals feel off the cuff, performed with intensity and spirit, with the music desperate to keep up with this force of nature, unsure of what the man himself is going to do next.