A King Krule Primer
On October 13, British musician King Krule (born Archy Marshall) will release his third studio album, The Ooz. The title is apt for the singer’s post-genre style — he creates a mix of jazz, rock, hip-hop, and dub that feels like a product of the online era, yet simultaneously as ancient as a primordial stew. To catch up on his work thus far, here is a playlist of 13 tracks that summarize the unique talent of King Krule.
Accompanied by propulsive eighth notes on a single guitar string, Marshall endures harassment by police, dissatisfaction with his job, and general urban malaise. All you want is to eat your pre-made supermarket sandwich in peace, until you notice it’s too old to be edible. You can’t even find the receipt amongst the detritus to raise a fuss. And why bother, that could be you on the other side of the counter, waiting to burst out “there’s no need to take that tone.” This song is British as hell: Marshall name drops Tesco, Bobbies, and concludes by paraphrasing Winston Churchill, “If you’re going through hell, you just keep going.” The song wraps up with a ritardando, slowing from the shout of the chorus to the mumble of finishing up in a phone booth. Head down, mouth shut.
“Portrait in Black and Blue”
“Spastic gyrations in abbreviated bathing suits.” Marshall distills the compulsion of young lust to five words, then zooms into the perspective of someone caught in its throes. This track from his 2011 self-titled EP is a fumbling attempt at flirtation. The inverted guitar chords strut along the first verse, as the lyrics veer from a pick-up pun to sudden intimate disclosures. “I suit you, ’cause I could be you and I could show you true,” he sings then wonders why his subject keeps running away. Just as quickly, his heart is broken, and he claims he was only lusting after a lie. During this bitter chorus, the drums stomp in at last — the pounding is cavernous, like a heartbeat in an embarrassed face.
One of King Krule’s most upbeat tracks begins with a sloppy slide down bass frets that introduces a sprightly guitar pattern. The rhythm section actually swings, and a wood block ticks, reverberating from deep in the mix. The narrator imagines his body sinking to the bottom of the sea, but it feels darkly ironic rather than hopelessly morose. Marshall’s thick accent chops his vowel sounds into a uniform powder that collaborator Earl Sweatshirt surely appreciates. “The soul is broken down, borderlines,” he sings. “To cause the tide, to enforce divide, this whole devotion has morphed in time.” It’s like he’s bragging about curing a stutter, even as the last bubbles of air leave his throat.
“Swell’s” straightforward electronic drums sound like the fitting room of a European fast fashion store. Rather than complement it with mall-ready synths, Marshall plays a simple, circular keyboard. He doubles his vocals at two distinct octaves. The high and low reach an uneasy middle point, like a cup of hot tea loaded with ice cubes. He repeats the title of the album like a mantra, relishing his discovery while the keys twinkle around him.
“Has This Hit?”
This is a good King Krule song that doubles as a perfect parody of a King Krule song. “Oh yeah, I know him, he’s the British Guy Who Yells.” The drums rumble in the distance, the splashy cymbals doubling in time like approaching storm clouds. The guitar and bass fidget anxiously, never quite settling into place. Marshall unleashes the ugliest edges of his voice — at the song’s climax, he bellows “I know when I look into the sky, there is no meaning.” The guy literally wrote a song called “Rock Bottom,” but this one truly sounds like the desperate end of something. Then, the clouds part, and a bright ray of a guitar lick shines through.
“The Sea Liner MK 1”
The ominous bass that opens this ANP2D track sounds like the overture to a video-game boss battle. The pixelated protagonist scrolls right until the screen stops following and a door shuts behind him, descending notes heralding a new foe that has yet to drop into view. The sleek drums come in and realign the bass notes to bridge each bar to the next, a rhythmic sleight-of-hand trick. Two minutes slip by before Marshall takes the mic. He raps in a deep monotone about the dead seed of a relationship. “She writes to me but does not come abroad, that’s why I guess she can’t be my broad,” he rhymes. “I love her but she’ll get bored.” He cuts himself off mid-verse with a scoff, like he’s just lost a life.
“Blue Train Lines”
Marshall appears as a guest on one track from the duo Mount Kimbie’s recent album, Love What Survives. His vocal performance alone makes it an essential part of his catalog. The lyrics compare a drug user’s veins to the titular train lines. The beat speeds like an accelerated heartbeat, the hi-hat propels it forward, but even as Marshall’s vocals soar upwards in pitch, the beat holds back, building and building. Marshall spits his words out seemingly without breathing. He deteriorates into an almost funky yelp just as a glorious synth bass appears. When the kick and snare start sprinting, it feels like the peak of something potent. “And yeah, I might have seen it all,” Marshall croons, like he’s too energized to remember all the shit he’s seen. Suddenly, it ends on a bass thump. The play button beckens, priming you for another hit.
The second single from The Ooz is the most straightforward rock song in the King Krule catalog. The aggressive power chords recall the garage rock from the new millennium, a scene past its prime before Marshall was old enough to drink. Marshall leans into the brattiness of taunts like, “Man, this band that’s playing, they’re playing fucking trash. Skunk and onion gravy, as my brain’s potato mash.” In the song’s video, Marshall rolls into a small club passively, lying face up on a hospital bed. His zombified skin matches five musicians standing onstage. As they begin to play, the singer sits up in bed, his long arms pulling a microphone to his face from out of the frame. When an honest-to-god guitar solo erupts, it rises on waves of AM radio saxophone. Marshall finishes the song posed on his knees, legs spread, guitar hoisted in the air. The bed rolls back from whence it came.
In its mix of spoken-word samples, heady beats, and abstract keys, Frank Ocean’s Endless is one of the few albums that seems to draw inspiration directly from A New Place 2 Drown. It’s surprising to learn that a collaboration between two voices-of-a-generation never gelled. On “Ammi Ammi,” a woman’s sampled voice calmly explains Christian lessons to children. She’s cut short by a dubby drum and bass groove. Each kick drum stretches out the space in the bar, only to snap back into place on the snare, while the thick bass meanders up and down. Fellow Londoner musician and Marshall’s former schoolmate Jamie Isaac follows suit on the chorus, singing “We just smoke and the days roll by.” It’s a cross-continental stoner summit that feels like J Dilla on vacation in Brixton. It’s a far cry from the West Coast sunshine of Frank Ocean, but the track taps into the same spirit of druggy experimentation.
This ballad shows Marshall at his most romantic. The composition was originally released in 2010 when the 16-year-old writer used the name Zoo Kid. The newer version sidesteps amateurish distractions like hissing sounds and an accelerating tempo. The spotlight rests entirely on the singer’s vulnerability as he croons “Girl, I could have been someone to you, would have painted the sky blue.” A character nicknamed Blue recurs throughout Marshall’s first album, and on their title track the relationship is laid plain. The gentle guitar part evokes a soloist playing up to last call at a smoky bar, perfect for sipping on reminiscence of a lost opportunity. There’s no sense of bitterness, only a hazy comfort.
Marshall returned to his King Krule identity this August, four years after his debut album and two years after A New Place 2 Drown. The jazzy instrumentation and conversational vocals recall fellow deep-voiced weirdo Tom Waits. In a subdued tone, Marshall narrates a cheeky interrogation from a girl at a pub. “I’ve found a new place to mourn,” he explains. She asks who died. He demurs that “if there’s a dark uniform, I need a place to hide.” After two verses, a honky-tonk piano swings into a short bluesy run. It’s a mere prelude to a wailing saxophone, soloing over the vocal coda. The videoshows the lanky redhead gazing up at a night sky from a city street. The camera zooms out to reveal Marshall seated in an airplane cabin, gazing at the same sky through a tiny window. He is everywhere and nowhere, perfect for a song rooted in one place but ambiguous about where that is.
Throughout his work, Marshall examines relationships at various stages of life and of satisfaction. On “Neptune Estate,” the narrator’s longing is stripped entirely bare. He knows what he had is over, but he’s not yet ready to let go, pride be damned. “Can’t you bear just one more night?” he asks, over and over. Of course one more night with someone who doesn’t love you anymore is hardly a consolation, but it might still be better than facing the first night without them. The piano and drums follow an incessant pattern, arcing up and back like Marshall’s hopes. “I wanna be with you, I wanna be used,” he murmurs, finally realizing the two are one and the same. When words are no longer sufficient, a group of saxophones rise up to take over the melody for a warm, brief moment. They sound like the last pulses of a heart monitor.
“Out Getting Ribs”
The song takes its title from a 1982 Jean-Michael Basquiat piece, scrawled in smudged pencil on a piece of paper, signed with the artist’s initials. This is the first King Krule song I ever heard, and I watched its video perplexed that such a brutal voice could emerge from such a fresh face. Despite the opening declaration that “hate runs through my blood,” the chiming guitar echoes Smiths six-string legend Johnny Marr as it builds and builds. After three verses, Marshall concludes, despite it all, “Don’t you worry ’bout a thing.” The song explodes into rapturous sixteenth-note strums for a precious few bars, then it concludes with slowing-down chords that resolve the melody. The catharsis is all too brief, but Marshall makes us savor what little we can find.
Originally published on The Awl.