In an interview late last year, Man Man keyboardist and vocalist Honus Honus hinted at a prevailing somberness to the band’s third and newest release. And, Jesus, he wasn’t kidding. Rabbit Habits is as musically jubilant and frenetic as the band’s earlier albums, but underneath its trademark cacophony of alleyway accordions, xylophones, and honky-tonk piano is some of the darkest subject matter the band has tackled to date.
Often, the two faces of Man Man — the quirky, doo-wop-obsessed surface, and its tormented underbelly — cross paths on a single song. And while there’s certainly an ample amount of that double-sidedness on Rabbit Habits, there’s also more pointed direction. And it’s mainly downward. After a boisterous first half, the backside of the album is a spiraling descent toward a grim and decimated collective soul. It’s both frightening and strangely captivating.
Man Man has always relished in contorting vague childhood memories into something potentially traumatic. With the combination of music class instruments, backup falsetto coos, and lyrics that recall distant bedtime stories (Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum), it feels like the band is revealing all of the creepy undertones of our adolescence that were glossed over with a happy ending a la Walt Disney. To keep the Disney references going, it’s like riding Splash Mountain at Disneyland, which seems pretty harmless on the surface, but once you see Brer Rabbit caught in a puddle of honey while the rest of the animatrons sing “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah”, you can’t help but sense that something’s wrong.
“The Ballad of Butter Beans” begins with light chimes and an escalating xylophone, while the band chants in the background as if on a major sugar high. Then Honus Honus’ recognizably burly voice comes in and starts singing about hunting down (literally) the mysterious food-based figure. There are plenty of other eccentric kitchen-pop moments, like “Hurly/Burly”, which opens with what sounds like kazoos trying to imitate car horns. Over the course of the song’s four minutes, the band stuffs in as many handclaps and high-pitched screams as it can muster.
Perhaps the one downside to Man Man’s kinky arrangements of collective noise and falsetto cries is that it shrouds lyrics that are twisted, but sometimes downright poignant. You have to turn to the more spacious piano-driven numbers to get a better feel for Honus Honus’ verses. The off-title track does just that. Over dueling pianos, Honus shifts from wacky to dour, as he sings
Don’t you dare say that you weren’t warned
That the end was coming soon
And your eyes shine Enola Gay-like as you see the light of day
And he don’t even taste the food he eats any more
And there’s a space and place where his heart was before
And he don’t even taste the food he eats anymore
And he don’t wanna dine alone
And she don’t wanna die alone
Coincidentally, this also marks the extremely dark tone that dictates the rest of the album. “Poor Jackie” picks up where “Rabbit Habbits” leaves off. The instrumentation is sparse and meandering, with mournful violin and a consistent bass drum evoking some abandoned cobblestone street with a single dim lantern providing light. Honus Honus sounds particularly hoarse and afflicted. After an especially sea shanty-like first couple of minutes, some string-plucking ups the tempo and Honus wails out the quasi chorus: “I don’t see what everybody sees in your sexy body / All I see is a shallow grave trapped inside a pretty face”. The eight-and-a-half-minute-long track slugs away with improvised horn spurts and the repeated refrain, “There ain’t no God here / As far as I can see”.
The album’s closer, “Whalebones”, plugs in the same steady rhythm from the end of “Poor Jackie”, with a little subdued banjo tucked away in the background. The female-led chant evolves into “Who are we to love at all”. And just like that, the song drifts away for seven minutes. Listening to the first side of Rabbit Habits, it’s almost impossible to guess that the album would end on such a muted and bleak note. Just two years ago, upon the release of Six Demon Bag, Honus Honus described the album using the words “Dark days.” Apparently those days have yet to pass. Of course, dark motifs are not a bad thing. But when you’re listening to this album, just make sure to bring a flashlight.