This is a record I want to like. I’ve felt this way a lot about King Krule. I like Archy Marshall, the little I know of him via his public presence. He seems possibly ahead of the game in terms of realizing that grey skies are more than just a metaphor for how he feels; they’re already kind of what he’s viewing the world set against. His voice is undeniable, and he has good taste. Even better, he has good and disparate tastes. And this record isn’t, like, awful. Not at all awful. But it still makes me a little pissed. Not at Archy Marshall. What I really hear in King Krule is a young man who hasn’t quite found himself yet, and who has nobody to tell him so.
I wanna say first that criticism can be a kind of over-trimming the bushes. This is an understatement. It can be a blindfolded massacre of the bushes. It’s very rare you see some critic holding the shears who knows what to do with them, how to excise the poor work (aka the fancy packaging and lazy, acceptable filler) and reveal the good work. Rarely does it seem to be anything but one extreme of praise or the other of disgust, unless it’s the expression of boredom, for which there is really no excuse in our world; you have no excuse at being bored, writers and critics alike. 6 Feet Beneath the Moon is far from a masterwork. Very, very far. But hovering somewhere between that and pure garbage, it shows Marshall’s potential. Gross word. Overused word. What else to say though, but again, that King Krule might get really good, but he has a long way to go.
Our culture and the music press born of it doesn’t tell him that. His label/management don’t tell him (but perhaps they don’t know). I can’t tell if he doesn’t know, or knows and doesn’t care.
What I’ve seen in other writing on King Krule is that Marshall “weaves together” his influences. What a worn and useless phrase, one of several phrases that are inexcusable in modern writing because they’ve long since stopped meaning anything, like the robotic recitation of Sunday service. What they mean when they say he weaves together his influences is that you can hear, if you’ve got a decent palette and have spent time with a lot of different kinds of music, that Archy Marshall has spent some time in this same way. Elements of jazz and rock and hip-hop are all present underneath the overriding element of a dense, rough baritone voice more or less reciting the words Archy’s written. But these elements haven’t created a cohesive and distinct tapestry to represent King Krule as a musical innovator. They’ve merely been put side by side to create something that is listenable, that passes.
In interviews King Krule lists Outkast, W.H. Auden, Fela Kuti, Gene Vincent, and Claude Debussy as influences on his person and his music. He knows what good music is and what good writing is, what good work is, or at least he knows how to spot it. He incorporates these in different ways, making a less-than-three-dimensional world for himself that includes a respect for words and an ear for elements of older styles of jazz and rock and hip-hop that shows well on this album.
Ours is a music press that treasures conventional beauty and echoes of celebrated music past and little else. This is a music press that can spot nostalgia and maybe sometimes talent but almost never good work. If they’re championing good work, it’s undoubtedly because it’s good work done by somebody who also happens to be pretty, or nostalgic, or quotable. There are few exceptions. Prove me wrong and I will thank you for it.
Marshall plays guitar and sings. I can’t tell what else but I imagine he at least messes around with other instruments. He gives consideration to his lyrics. They’re honest. They’re an honest document of how he feels about whatever’s going on with him. They feel very immediate. While they capture something for him, they don’t convey to us what they’ve captured for him. His voice is a really great voice, but his cadence and tone seldom vary, and the voice is put often to poor use; when it does vary it’s made to drag down the ends of sad lines, or to strain out the angry ones, to make sure those emotions get to us. They’re not there in the words alone.
Some of the best lyrics say something that melts right through all your b.s. with a simple phrase turned the just-right way. Archy Marshall writes lyrics that satisfy for him the need to have documented a feeling, even an observation of himself, but he hasn’t learned to write a lyric that translates that observation into a mirror in which his listener is reflected.
The other day, a friend, a musician, pointed out this pair of lines by Leonard Cohen: “You never liked to get the letters that I sent/but now you’ve got the gist of what my letters meant.” Cohen’s a pretty unfair comparison for anybody, but Archy calls himself a poet, so he’s kind of asking for it. Those lines are painfully simple. The pain comes from 1) knowing that it hurts for one or both parties involved, and spotting that dig 2) knowing that hurt yourself, and feeling that dig 3) not having written them. I wonder if and doubt that anybody will hear the lyrics on 6 Feet Beneath… and think “that nails just how I feel,” let alone “I wish I’d written that.”
Marshall has a respectable attitude toward his influences: he loves and admires them, and also hates them when they accomplish something he has not or cannot. That’s my summation of several of his responses in a recent interview, and it’s his simple summation of one of the best ways to begin making yourself good at what you do: identifying your betters and, from them, your own path to a better version of yourself. That’s how it should be. In the interview, Marshall mentions the song “When Your Lover Has Gone”; it’s a good song, and he wishes he’d written it. It became a standard after featuring in a Jimmy Cagney movie. It’s been covered dozens of times by a lot of people I hope you’ve heard of. “When Your Lover Has Gone” was written in 1931 by a 29-year-old named Einar A. Swan. His Finnish immigrant father was a musician and Einar played four instruments before he was a teenager. By the time he wrote that song, he’d been playing in bands for 16 years, composing and arranging songs for seven of those years. Then he wrote that song.
I don’t know why things were that way then, and they’re this way now, why we used to teach and develop musicians and now we shit them out before they’re ready. Or rather, I do, but I don’t know why the public accepts them this way now and they didn’t then. Why did they have more discerning tastes back then? I suppose it was the entire culture. Music just hadn’t been commodified to the extent that it is now. It hadn’t been replaced by the bland, formulaic products of an automated assembly line and we hadn’t been conditioned to accept it as an accessory. Archy, you didn’t write this song because you can’t yet. You might be able to one day, but it’ll be entirely up to you to become the kind of musician and writer that can. It’s a lot more work than the people associated with your career want you to think. You’re making everybody money so why would they do anything about that?
Youth of today, go back to your bedroom and read, and write, and do that over and over and over before you ever present something to the public. Make it undeniable, just as undeniable as your conventional beauty or great raw talent that you deserve no credit for. Work is what makes you. And, surprise, it makes a better, more insane, more satisfying life for you than one that is cobbled together from the “culture of youth” that you don’t make, but that is sold to you.