One of the hallmarks of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s landmark 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc is its use of extreme close-ups. Individual facial features—the left eye, a chin, a single set of freckles—are shot with uncanny depth from canted angles, spiritualizing a saint from some perspectives and indicting a heretic in others. The film is regarded as an early example of cubist filmmaking, and rightfully so: Everything about it just feels italicized.
When King Krule recently cited The Passion of Joan of Arc as an influence on his new album, something clicked. A career-long pattern asserted itself: The artist born Archy Marshall has been trying to make cubist music. Man Alive!, the latest from the brooding Londoner, sounds like an attempt to clarify that; the sonics throughout are malleable and the perspectives are all over the place, but there’s an undeniable—and undeniably unnerving—unity to the album’s composure. Recontextualizing the best elements (and, arguably, the unfulfilled promises) of his discography in a finally-defined voice, Marshall has made his first truly great record from front to back.
There’s a certain flattening effect to Man Alive!, pulling unique sounds and ideas from each of Marshall’s past records and smashing their perspectives together. Where each of Marshall’s previous albums was marred by their indulgence, Man Alive! is acerbic in its density, elegantly moving between the guitar-forward production of King Krule’s 2013’s debut 6 Feet Beneath The Moon and the left field-leaning abstractions of its 2017 follow-up, The Ooz. (There’s even room for the trip-hop inclinations of 2015’s A New Place 2 Drown, quietly released under Marshall’s own name, on Man Alive!’s best song, “Stoned Again.”) Each previous album over-committed to their individual soundscape, but the coherence of and play between all of King Krule’s styles on Man Alive! would make a cubist proud.
Album opener “Cellular” makes as much clear. Crescendoing synths crash into a thick guitar line, zooming out to layer electronic drum kits and a sultry saxophone line. Light vocal processors slowly get stripped from Marshall’s voice, leading him back to his signature chain-smoking growl, abrasively chanting “I phone my ex” in the distance. While “Cellular” might be the most straightforward track on the album, it establishes Man Alive! as a metatext, an album more interested in dissecting the idea of King Krule than it is inhabiting that persona.
That’s particularly evident in the album’s early run of songs, which take returning themes to extremes amid heavy-hitting guitar riffs and grunge-inflected slow dances. “Stoned Again” is a self-medicating headbanger with deliriously clarion percussion, while the overwhelmingly shrill “Comet Face” interrogates the violence resulting from Marshall’s heightened masculinity during a bender. Marshall’s lyricism largely pivots away from the intricate connections and metaphors of his past albums in favor of isolated scenes and moments.
Man Alive!’s inspired midpoint is “Alone, Omen 3,” maybe the sweetest song Marshall has ever written. “The ache of thunder / In the storms of your mind / Soak it in, for the rain will pass in time,” he croons with anxious jitters. Now a father, the track reads like an apology in advance for the emotional behaviors Marshall’s daughter might inherit. “You’re not alone,” Marshall screams repeatedly as guitars and drums collapse in on themselves in a reverb-addled freakout, recognizing the impending cacophony of her life. There are passing references to contemporary politics and climate anxiety peppered throughout: “From 50-foot cigs, blow smoke across the border / To men that drowned holding their daughters / And weren’t allowed refuge from the horrors,” he sings potently on “Theme for the Cross,” bemoaning the post-Brexit lifestyle that’ll affect his daughter the least.
The back half of Man Alive! descends into The Ooz’s noir-tinged jazz. While “Airport Antenatal Airplane” and “Don’t Let the Dragon (Draag On)”—the album’s worst pairing of songs—sound like repurposed outtakes, the Lynchian slow dance of “Underclass” paves way for the album’s unsettling climax. Heavy vocal processors chant “It’s such a funny life” on the disintegrating “Energy Fleets,” descending into the heavy dirge of closing track “Please Complete Thee.” Pulling out of the most flagrantly concerning lyrics on the album on its finale (“This place doesn’t move me / Everything just seems to be numb that surrounds”), Marshall finds solace in sound; whimsical guitars and flittering synths return Man Alive! to the same hopeful textures that opened it.
Man Alive!’s biggest strength lies in its sequencing. There’s no narrative throughline to the record, but there’s certainly still an emotional journey to it, elegantly flowing from optimistic synths to self-imploding percussion, from visions of his daughter’s life to the apocalyptic end of Marshall’s own. Like The Passion of Joan of Arc’s spiritual cinematography, each track plays like an extreme close-up in service of a uniquely coherent whole.