Archy Marshall is a man prepared to swim against the tide. Whereas many of his fellow BRIT School graduates dive straight for the pop charts, he’s cultivated a deliberately ugly-sounding melange of garage rock, ramshackle jazz and hip-hop. And while most people head to London to seek and sustain fame, he’s now moved the other way, setting up home in the north-west of England with his partner and child. Man Alive! is more evidence of that independent nature. Uncompromising and unremittingly downbeat, it hasn’t been made to people please.
The pace barely picks up, the mood doesn’t lift, it’s all shade, no light. Consider it a darker counterpoint to the work of his mate and near contemporary at school, Loyle Carner. There’s fewer jazz flourishes on this album than its Mercury-nominate predecessor The Ooz, but much the same pall of anxiety and anguish hangs over it.
When it works – which in practice means when there’s a standard song structure to it – it’s brilliant. Stoned Again is mighty, a lumbering juggernaut of beefy bass and woozy guitar. It feels like the claustrophobic, urban disillusionment it depicts in lines about keepie-uppie and KFC buckets. “On my tenth birthday / Got a puppy,” snarls Marshall, sounding like he probably went on to dismember it. Its sibling, Comet Face, does the trick too, marrying a noir-y Inspector Gadget bassline to a gritty inner city mystery of its own: “Woke up, Peckham Rye at half five / Boy on the ground with his pants down / What happened to him in his past life?”
That tightness and focus isn’t sustained though. The second half becomes a long, treacle-thick trudge through a dark sonic landscape with few distinguishing features. Much of it feels like unedited improvisation as it moves at snail’s pace to a barely there drum beat or a murmuring of brass, Marshall’s gloomy croon occasionally erupting into pugilistic fury. The album’s a song suite of sorts, each one flowing into the next, but without sufficient change of tone to mark the journey.
There’s some tasty ingredients on Man Alive! for sure, but they’ve been cooked together into one big mush. Somewhere within is a smart depiction of stolen-futured British urban life that could more than hold its own among others of that ilk.