With the passage of time, it has been easy to forget the essential weirdness of Robert Johnson‘s guitar playing. Johnson has been canonized as the King of the Delta Blues and lauded by guitarists like Eric Clapton and Keith Richards for so long that listeners have often lost track of how unearthly Johnson sounded. True, there is the whole mythology of the devil and the crossroads as a means of explaining the mastery that Johnson had attained. The limited material, comprising only 29 songs recorded by Don Law over two sessions in San Antonio and Dallas in 1936 and 1937, respectively, has further added to his mystique. Yet, the strangeness of Johnson’s work – the high-strung tonal inflections that seem unrepeatable, the fidgety, fugitive finger moves that elude confinement as if being chased by dogs – ultimately leaves a sense of mystery.
British musician King Krule (Archy Marshall) is not an equal to Johnson, but he does belong to a provisional genealogy of guitarists who have channeled a difficult-to-categorize eccentricity that Johnson arguably established. This lineage is separate from the more widely recognized blues tradition that Johnson helped crystalize. Rather than figures like Son House or Muddy Waters, this alternative pedigree includes musicians like Syd Barrett, Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, Roky Erickson, Jandek, early Bill Callahan (when he recorded as Smog), Jim O’Rourke, and Thurston Moore on his solo LPs. Krule belongs to this eclectic cohort of highly individual guitar auteurs.
Krule made this clear on his first album, 6 Feet Beneath the Moon (2013), released when he was still a teenager. That LP revealed a tightly coiled musician who let his guitar wander into rock, jazz, hip-hop, blues, and amalgamations thereof. His vocals, whose thick nasal baritone recalls the late Joe Strummer, were prone to laconic remarks, sarcastic missives, and emotional vulnerability in equal measure. Tracks like “Easy Easy” and “Out Getting Ribs” (the guy has an amazing facility with song titles) combined these traits to great effect.
Krule’s subsequent efforts have possessed a similar vitality. Traversing different genres in a manner that has felt organic and reflective of present trends, A New Place 2 Drown (2015), released under his birth name, explored electronic music, R&B, and hip-hop beats further, seemingly abandoning his signature guitar work at the time. His third album, The OOZ (2017), marked a return to his former style, with tracks like the noirish opener “Biscuit Town”, the jazzy “Czech One”, and the paranoid freakout “Half Man Half Shark” synthesizing the experiments and moods of his preceding two LPs to create a late-night atmospheric joint. Man Alive! (2020) conveyed less warmth, being bleaker and more emotionally obscure, while retaining Krule’s compelling digressive musical tendencies.
Krule’s new album Space Heavy is characteristically a wild listening experience. This LP is arguably more muted and introspective than past outings, seemingly reflecting our pandemic moment. It is definitely more rock and blues-oriented, dispensing with many of the electronic and hip-hop leanings in his past work. This intention is announced in the mournful opening track “Flimsier”, which begins with an antiquated synth chord that sounds like it’s either from a French New Wave sci-fi film or a TV public service announcement circa 1975. In either case, it elicits your immediate attention. An atmospheric space rock guitar quickly glides into place, however, with Krule singing, “She said, ‘It seems like these days merge as one’ / Oh, I tried to change them to better ones.”
These opening lines capture the album’s melancholic blues sensibility. They also prefigure how the album folds in on itself with recurrent melodies. Indeed, some of the tracks on Space Heavy pair up, reflecting the idea of days merging into one. “Flimsier” has an instrumental sibling, “Flimsy” (Track 7), later on the album, which repeats the earlier song’s melody more slowly with a baleful electric guitar and violins. Yet another song, “Our Vacuum” (Track 11), returns a third time to the same melody in a slightly modified variation. In parallel, the upbeat psych-pop track “Seaforth” (Track 3) has an apparent twin with “Seagirl” (Track 10), albeit with slower pacing, a more downbeat tuning, and featuring guest vocals by Raveena (Raveena Aurora).
As indicated by the track numbers provided, there is no clear surface logic to this pattern of amended repetition. It took several listens to pick up on the subtle recurrence of these melodic themes. Though his songs are typically around three minutes or less, Krule’s albums are not known for their brevity, and with 15 tracks clocking in at 45 minutes, Space Heavy doesn’t sound repetitive. Like his past work, the record wanders musically, exploring multiple avenues to test and work out different ideas, which sometimes approaches a stream-of-consciousness format. Krule’s shapeshifting songs can drift into each other like floating clouds. At other times his guitar chords impart a blurry ambiance with mottled watercolor tones.
Though Space Heavy is more emotionally preoccupied than its predecessors, Krule hasn’t lost his assured, inventive style. Some early tracks break out, like “Pink Shell”, which starts with an angular bass line and a declarative, riot-grrrl-style vocal. “Tortoise of Independency” has the title and delicate quality of a children’s bedtime ballad. The stripped-down, garage rock track “Hamburgerphobia” makes an entirely different impression through its unconventional tuning and fast, jittery percussion.
In contrast, tracks toward the end of Space Heavy, like “When Vanishing” and “If Only It Was Warmth”, are mellower, jazzier, and emotionally forlorn. Krule repeats the line “Running out of space for your mistakes” in the latter song, though it comes across as more exhausted than accusatory. “If only it was warmth that you held,” Krule remarks persistently to close out the song, implying much more than is said.
Unsurprisingly, the theme of space is touched upon throughout Space Heavy. The album was apparently inspired by Krule’s commuting between Liverpool and London. The repetition of melodic lines may represent this going back and forth on the same railway route but never experiencing the same thing twice. Yet, the space referred to is both physical and temporal. The title suggests a paradox, given that space implies emptiness and a consequent lightness, even zero gravity. However, the LP undeniably has a weighty emotional undertow that conveys the exact opposite.
Space Heavy poses no straightforward solutions to this quandary. It imparts instead the basic idea that time and space are what you make of them. They are limited. This observation is a cliché, and to Krule’s credit, his lyrics and music are anything but hackneyed. Indeed, he approaches a provisional answer by alleviating his sentiments of isolation with dense sonic layers that tentatively fill in space and time. Whether this fully resolves the predicament this LP identifies is unclear.
Nonetheless, to be passive to these facts is to disregard something essential about life. Space Heavy doesn’t exactly end on an uplifting note. The closing track, “Wednesday Overcast”, has a metronomic beat resembling a train’s rhythmic sounds, with Krule mumbling words over this elemental structure. His last lines, however, leave the possibility of brightness: “A lot has changed / Now a lot means to me.”