King Krule‘s 2017 album The OOZ clarified what was well-known to people who had tracked the London wunderkind’s every release and moniker for six years: here was someone capable of a classic album. There were flashes of brilliance at every turn from “Zoo Kid” to just simply Archy Marshall for the mostly-overlooked A New Place 2 Drown, but The OOZ saw him hone his aesthetic and craft a soundscape that worked for him and him alone. Saxophones and guitars were imbued with a cosmic drift as Marshall stood in the center, saying something profound, indistinct, or (often) both.
That’s why while being an appointed leader in indie rock, Marshall is very much not part of the scene. He’s not interested in ruminative bedroom lyrics, folksy guitar playing, or even having any social media presence. While the biggest indie musicians succeed in being a bit of an open book, Marshall remains spectral – only reaching emotion when he goes into a trademark blood-curdling squawk.
Man Alive! doesn’t eat into that image one bit, and determining how much you wanted something different from King Krule will tell you how much of an essential release this is. Even The OOZ had its detractors with some critics calling it idiosyncratic, unfocused, and too long, but only Man Alive!‘s brisk 41-minute runtime might win them over. The album also comes filled without many distinct melodies to latch onto, especially in the absence of anything as snappy as “Dum Surfer” or “Biscuit Town”. The first half does have some strong standalone tracks though in “Cellular”, “Stoned Again”,” and “Comet Face”. The last among these is the most danceable with a thick bassline and a deftly-employed saxophone in its crescendo and outro.
Marshall’s lyricism remains beautifully inscrutable and passionate in equal measure. His go-to metaphors of sinking, floating, and dreaming are dispersed throughout tales of failed romance and urban malaise. After the album’s first stretch of immediate standalone tracks, Man Alive! settles into a cinematic groove where the song arrangements are as nebulous as the lyrics and Marshall’s toasty cigarette-burn vocals. You can feel the spirit of Serge Gainsbourg revived when King Krule has these lengthy album stretches; it’s best just to kick back and forgo intense deciphering. Now for some, this is where King Krule’s aesthetic starts to get aimless, and it’s understandable, but that belief is associated with a need for rock music to be less ambient and have more of a forceful purpose. The muted pleasures of something like “Airport Antenatal Airplane” beg to differ.
Man Alive!‘s biggest drawback is also makes it enjoyable; it doesn’t separate itself enough from The OOZ. Many would enjoy King Krule releasing this type of album every few years, but that would come with a shrinking audience and less fanfare around each successive release. It’s a curse making the classic record you were meant to make. You’re left afterward trying to reinvent yet knowing that what you’re doing is working.
Despite that, Man Alive! is one of the year’s best front-to-back listens – one that never diverges from its polished soundscape. In that way, it’s on par with Tame Impala’s The Slow Rush, which came out a week before. They’re both albums that won’t necessarily win over former critics, but proves the acts’ distinct aesthetics are still captivating.