November 12, 2013

Peter Holslin gives bruises as hard as he gets ’em

Flying Lotus goes great with ice cream. The unearthly beats and creamy flavors mix perfectly, conjuring a vibe of pure wonder. I know this because I work at an ice cream shop (well, we sell gelato if you want to be technical), and I play FlyLo there all the time. In the four months I’ve been working at this humble place of business, I’ve also been known to spin Zomby, J Dilla, Bob Marley, Mac DeMarco and Slayer, all of whom (yes, including Slayer) offer the ideal soundtrack to a scoop of sugary sunshine.

However, there is one artist I do not play in the shop, and that is King Krule, aka 19-year-old London songsmith Archy Marshall. The last time I did, it was all going well until his brutalist croon suddenly tore a gash through the room, leaving a trail of bad vibes. “Another disappointed soul!” Marshall cried, rattling my co-worker and I. It was such a nice summer evening; this just couldn’t fly. I immediately switched my iPod to something lower key.

King Krule’s new album, 6 Feet Beneath the Moon, is a remarkable piece of music. There’s nothing quite like it out today: An amalgamation of jazz, hip-hop, singer-songwriter and spoken word, it’s knotty and unpredictable, scrappy but complete, its atmospheric parts drawn together by Marshall’s aching South London drawl. I’ve been listening to this album for the past two months and still haven’t entirely wrapped my head around it—which just makes me want to keep listening. But for all of its allure, 6 Feet is not something people should take lightly.

There are moments on here that feel sublime: The languid lounge guitar of “Baby Blue” conjures images of mysterious beauties in smoke-filled jazz clubs, while the dreamlike groove that leads “Foreign” offers all the comfort of a Tempur-Pedic mattress. But even the album’s most beautiful moments are riven with welts and bruises. Over the warm electric organs of “Cementality,” Marshall contemplates tossing himself out a bedroom window. In the brittle “Out Getting Ribs,” he invokes violence while singing of love: “But girl I’m black and blue / So beaten down for you.”

King Krule first drew the attention of critics with “Out Getting Ribs” around 2010-2011, and it was just the right time for a songwriter like this to blow up. After all, 2011 was the year of the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, and the London riots. Collective outbursts of anger, pain, frustration and protest were sweeping across the world, and if Krule didn’t speak directly to political troubles, he certainly captured the tense, volatile mood in a way that many of the year’s most critically-acclaimed artists never did. (Lookin’ at you, Bon Iver.)

But King Krule’s artistic merits aren’t fleeting, tethered to a particular moment in time. Much like another young British singer-songwriter with an amazing voice—Amy Winehouse (RIP)—Marshall shows a depth of soul beyond his age. He may be famed for his twiggy appearance, but his voice is that of a person who’s really, truly lived, wrangling with serious issues while staying up all night listening to the Pixies.

Alas, Krule isn’t nearly as formidable a lyricist as Mike Skinner from The Streets, a project to which Marshall has often been compared. Where Skinner drew portraits of the geezer lifestyle with indelible imagery and devastating wit, Krule often relies on impressionistic phrasings and lofty symbolism. While that can be breathtaking—“My sandpaper sight engraves a line / Into the rust of your tongue,” he sings on “Baby Blue”—it also sometimes smacks of under-developed, teenage poetics.

That’s just being picky, though. Krule’s power comes not necessarily in the words themselves, but in the way he makes them feel urgent and alive. In “Neptune Estate,” he deftly traverses between sing-songy vocal hooks and bracing bursts of spoken word. There are moments when he isn’t saying anything at all, letting the drums crack along in the background, and these pauses give the impression that Marshall is weighing the consequences of what he might say, thinking things over even as he sets down his lines in the recording booth.

I recently interviewed a San Diego songwriter who wrote the music for the emotionally jarring indie film Short Term 12. Working on the score, he said he kept the music spare so that it wouldn’t let viewers know how feel. They were supposed to feel something; it was just ambiguous as to exactly what. The same could be said of 6 Feet Beneath the Moon. There are those buzz-killing moments, those wounded cries about disappointed souls. But there are also gorgeous textures and elegant plucks of jazz guitar. It’s all layered together, intermingling in the muck of life.

So, yeah, it’s not exactly ice cream material. What I’ve found, though, is that 6 Feet is perfect for the drive home. In the late-night hours, after all the ice cream has been scooped, the espresso shots have been pulled, the countertops have been wiped and the dishes scrubbed, my body wants to go to bed, but my mind is thirsty for a little stimulation. Cruising down the street, with few cars around and only the daydreams and the radio to keep me company, I’m finally open to whatever King Krule has to say.

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