Album of the Week | Anjimile: The King

With a return primed for coronation, the Durham-based folk singer radically upends his sound to craft a grand portrait of fiery rage and tender self-mythologizing

Music Reviews Anjimile
Album of the Week | Anjimile: The King

The strange thing about mythology is that it only works as far as you’ve been given a chance to fit into it. Trying to place yourself inside the larger-than-life lineage of a culture becomes increasingly fraught if that culture hasn’t considered you in its acts of myth-making, carving you and your story out of the picture for a picaresque narrative that sugarcoats its own bloody reality. In these instances, the only viable action is to write about and into the blank spaces as boldly as you can, with the intent of finally being heard. Folk artist Anjimile Chithambo does just that on his thundering second record The King, quite literally beginning with a retelling of the Biblical story of Belshazzar’s feast, as a direct means of stating his aims. “There’s a king on high,” Anjimile sings of this tale, and—as in the Book of Daniel—that long, dishonorable rule from those who previously commanded the narrative must be overthrown.

Where his debut album Giver Taker explored a more delicate form of personal storytelling—often delivered via nimble, unadorned acoustic guitar flourishes in line with Sufjan Stevens’ Michigan or Illinois—Anjimile works on a much grander scale across The King, as if conjuring a vision of what folk music would sound like if it was delivered by Philip Glass. It’s a record akin to speaking with the force of every voice like Anjimile’s that has been left silent for centuries, arriving with a volume and might that feels primed to shatter anything that gets in its way. Guitar strings now thrum and buzz where they once felt gentle, and Anjimile’s voice is occasionally put through bass-heavy filters or joined by a calamitous, otherworldly choir sonorous enough to make the speakers rattle.

Anjimile’s choice to radically reconfigure the basics of his sound is nothing short of revelatory. Much of The King comes solely from Anjimile’s guitar and voice, even if the record’s production makes it sound as if the tracks are being wrought by a cataclysmic full band. On the climax of “Mother,” Anjimile twists their guitar into a wounded howl of a thing, like a klaxon cry at the climax of a Godspeed You! Black Emperor piece. The pure range of sounds that Anjimile and producer Shawn Everett are able to invoke calls to mind the work BJ Burton made with Low on their final albums, reenvisioning the simplest instrumentation possible until it sounded anything but its source. Here, his acoustic guitar takes on a similarly striking effect: harnessing all the tenderness commonly associated with it on tracks like “Father,” before being torn apart in a distortion-heavy flurry and redirected as a sharp percussive implement on “Black Hole.”

If there’s one thing that The King’s sound especially works to highlight, it’s Anjimile’s lyricism. Much of Giver Taker operated in similar narratives of family history and self-definition, but The King weds that focus to its sound even further, its assuredness more emphatic, its openness all the more vulnerable. And, on tracks like “Harley,” where Anjimile sings into a reverb-heavy soundscape for one of the rawer personal moments of songwriting, the transition explores new, audacious configurations that their emotional side can take.

The shift feels particularly apt for how Anjimile writes about his perspective as a Black trans artist in the three years since he released his debut. Take, for example, the standout centerpiece “Animal,” where they channel all of their unfiltered rage at the ways Black people have been dehumanized into a vicious protest stomp. Anjimile’s transformation into a snarling register on this track lands with cutting acumen, letting his composure break when calling a white Blue Lives Matter liberal a “piece of shit I couldn’t stand at all.” Elsewhere, Anjimile often returns to matters of the body, as on the sparsely fingerpicked invocation “In my stillness / I am safety / I am overdressed / There is nothing / But my body / I don’t need the rest” that soon gives way to a droning wind tunnel of a coda. Routinely, one of Anjimile’s most stunning achievements is making his music its own body for boundless expression—be it the ownership, hurt, embodiment, dissociation, or plainness of stories they aim to write into being.

The most remarkable thing about The King, however, is that its synthesis of sound and vision makes it feel so thoroughly like a monumental record. Between the time a heralding choir sounds Anjimile’s arrival on the opening title track and the time their heavily-processed Koyaanisqatsi-by way of-Garden of Delete guitar first arrives like a torrential storm, it’s eminently clear that Anjimile is working with a confidence and scope few artists would dare to grasp, let alone on their sophomore album. Beyond anything else, it’s thrilling to see such a previously modest artist reinvent themselves this dramatically, and to see that reimagining so fully realized. On the chilling final track “The Right,” Anjimile’s voice trembles as he cries out, “Haven’t I earned the right? / Make my body bite” over and over, a pleading refrain against a cavern of choral vocals and buzzsaw guitar hums. By the end of The King, you’ll believe that he has more than earned it.

Natalie Marlin is a freelance music and film writer based in Minneapolis with writing in Stereogum, Bandcamp Daily, Pitchfork and Little White Lies. She was previously as a staff writer at Allston Pudding. She is always at the front of the pit. Follow her on Twitter at @NataliesNotInIt.

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