On Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, past the junction and heading east toward Echo Park, there’s a billboard advertising The Ooz, Archy Marshall’s second album as King Krule, out Friday. On the billboard, he sits across a dining table from a dog wearing a smoking jacket. Marshall himself wears a tweedy, ill-fitting David Byrne suit with small, square sunglasses. Like all else Archy Marshall, the billboard doesn’t make immediate sense, but it seems thoughtfully constructed.
The allure of the Peckham, London–born misanthrope is the same as any other technoparanoic cult figure who hates engagements and speaks only in book forewords. Your Earl Sweatshirts, your James Blakes, your Frank Oceans. He doesn’t give a shit, but he’s very concerned with the manner in which he chooses not to give it. He’s 23 years old as of August, but when he’d just turned 19, Archy Marshall spoke to The Guardian about the name “King Krule” and what it could possibly mean. “Imagine a king crawling through the city on his hands and knees,” he said while literally rolling a cigarette and sounding exactly like someone who attended the same arts school as Amy Winehouse and Adele and FKA Twigs. “It’s aristocracy at the very bottom.” He was more forthcoming in a later interview, revealing that it was King Creole, the title of an Elvis Presley movie from 1958, that morphs, with a south London accent, into “King Krule.” It was Presley, Gene Vincent, Paul Weller, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins who informed his bereaved croon. Of Hawkins, Marshall said that “someone told me he discovered his voice by just recording really drunk.” As for the way he builds melody, skip to the minute mark of this “What’s In My Bag” video from Amoeba Music to see him gush about John Moody and King Pleasure.
Marshall’s resulting music as King Krule is spare, discouraged, and difficult not to think too hard about. At different times it can sound like a king brought low by some combination of misfortune and apathy, or a serf imagining himself as king over his shrinking spit of land, or something like that. So King Krule isn’t fun by any means, but he also doesn’t care too much one way or the other if you’re a fan. Just look at this 2013 MTV News headline from one month before his debut album, 6 Feet Beneath the Moon, came out.
Talk about leaving your shot up: the quote, in its full splendor, was “I’m not surprised, I think my music’s good.” (He was thankful to be bigged up by Beyoncé; who wouldn’t be?) This was about “Easy Easy,” a melancholic piece of guitar music that tells you to take your lumps and soldier on. It was also a breakout success of a single, and the oldest song on the album—Marshall wrote it when he was 12. On “Easy Easy,” Krule laments, among other things like police brutality and dead-end jobs, buying a sandwich left out past its sell-by date. But the way he hurls his taller, huskier voice at 18 says it’s so not about the sandwich.
So Beyoncé put the song on her blog. Willow Smith covered it. 6 Feet was the only thing Earl Sweatshirt cared about for awhile. Travis Scott remixed one of his songs. Frank Ocean wanted to work with him. But on arrival, Marshall seemed eager to drop out of sight. He was a teenager, however little he sounded like it. “Traveling so much, playing so much, and being this character so much—it obscured me,” he said in a profile that ran in The New York Times last week. “I feel like I was too young and I went pretty headfirst into trying to carve a career out. It sounds cliché, but I kind of lost where I was coming from for a bit.”
That would’ve been easy enough to do considering the breathlessly positive reviews of his debut, to say nothing of all the aliases he has. Marshall has also crafted batches of stray instrumentals as DJ JD Sports, weird and vaguely vaporwavish one-offs as The Return of Pimp Shrimp, and more hip-hop-leaning stuff as Edgar the Beatmaker. But he was “Zoo Kid” first; 16 and fresh-faced and wearing one too many layers, singing over a gloomy ostinato about the hate that runs through his blood.
“Out Getting Ribs,” which borrows its title from a Basquiat work, isn’t about shoddy council housing or police and state violence or the official neglect that would bubble into the London Riots, but it could be about how those circumstances sucked the air out of day-to-day life. The formula proved itself to work: that weariness, plus his mucus-weighted baritone, and his post-punk-dub-jazz-primal-scream-therapy sound. Kanye apparently wanted in, but instead, at the height of his popularity, Marshall decided to game out some ideas with his brother, producing a mixed-media project, A New Place 2 Drown, under his given name. There was a hefty 208-page art book and a 37-minute album full of opaque trip-hop cuts.
These are all very cool, uncommercial moves, in the tradition of other auteur musicians like Jandek, or the progressively dark and avant-garde Scott Walker, neither of whom it’d be surprising to learn Marshall is a fan of. To his credit, Marshall isn’t blind to the material cost of prizing ambiguity and artistic integrity above all else: “I’ve turned down so many opportunities where I could maybe be rich right now,” he said, later in that New York Times profile. And then, with a “laugh and an expletive,” he wonders why he couldn’t bring himself to just do the commercial thing. He’s not all the way comfortable with his choice, nor is it constantly ruining his day, but he’s still mulling over how everything has played out. It’s a confusing space to exist in, somewhere between chasing mystery, or some semblance of peace, all the while begging to be noticed.
The Ooz, his first project in four years as King Krule, is a return to that space, and to the murky depths of his subconscious, which is probably why it resists you so much on first listen. “The ooz” as he’s described it, is the physical and metaphorical “gunk” we purge ourselves of on a daily basis. It was written over two years back in south London, during which he had ample time to explore the effects of insomnia, creative exhaustion, and heartache, all of which can take hold of the whole body.
“I’m not in the mood, but I got a move,” he says to open the second track, “The Locomotive,” over a limping riff. It’s a breakup album, but it’s also an album indirectly about writer’s block, and the abject difficulty of cornering your thoughts, even when thoroughly alone. He goes on: “Waiting for the train, in the dead of night I howl.” This lover who left him in disrepair never gets a name (on “Czech One”: “You asked me what her name was called / I found it hard to write”) but the disrepair itself seems to be the point. “Nothing is working with me” he screams on “Slush Puppy,” a disheartening duet with Okay Kaya. Alienation and self-loathing are the central themes of his vocalese as with previous works, punched up by all the strange and random sounds he chooses to leave in; a zonked out sax crashes in here, a synth seemingly passed through a fisheye lens filters up there. The writing, as ever, staggers backward into profundity. On the low-spirited “Logos”: “We were soup together / but now it’s cold / We were glued together / but it warned to hold.”
It’s not all wounded crooning and groaning, though. Songs like “Dum Surfer,” “Half Man Half Shark,” “Emergency Blimp,” and “Vidual”—the last a collection of bandying guitars and Guy Ritchie slam cuts to different kinds of bitter disappointment—are coughed forward with bratty, dubby force. “Biscuit Town,” the album’s opener, is mostly spoken word that never tips fully over into rapping, playing with assonant sounds and football references (“He left the crime scene without the Motorola / Still had dreams of being young ’Franco Zola”).
What happens when you return home and don’t find it restful or restorative? When the very cement of the city you know best is hardening around your ankles? When it seems there’s no quiet place out there on earth for you to think? Krule thinks anyway, aloud. The Ooz doesn’t offer straight answers, or ever really explain the dog in the smoking jacket. But it would like you to wait a minute, or 20 more listens, before passing judgment. It doesn’t make immediate sense. But it seems thoughtfully constructed.