Archy Marshall writes songs that sound closer to the legends of the past than the present, sings with a brogue that has more than a passing resemblance to Joe Strummer, and is named after a Donkey Kong villain. Basically, I should have checked out King Krule much, much earlier.
King Krule’s new single “Rock Bottom” has got me hurriedly trying to listen to his discography. The track opens with a casually played blues riff and a dedication. Marshall’s so confidant, so easily good, that it’s hard to do anything but shake my head and smile. Sure, he’s offering a dedication to “Mr. Breem, Mr. (Lou or Jimmy?) Reed, Mr. Piney (Brown?), Mr. Mood” but it’s more alike to pointing to the fences before a homerun instead of a homage. A couple strums and the song picks up a rumbling bassline and a wounded heart. A fifth of bourbon and Marshall sounds like the blues musicians he might or might not be dedicating the song to: loose, heartbroken, and mysterious.
With a yell, drums clatter into the song and Krule’s funky, aggressive swing push his sound from a dirt road somewhere in 1950’s Mississippi to The Clash’s 1980’s London. Marshall’s lyrics are unbelievable and prove he has shares more than a vocal comparison to Strummer. His turns of phrase are arresting (he complains about a “wounded, sore back” from backstabbings), his images are vivid, and he sketches the heartbroken narrator beating himself up over not seeing the signs of a lover’s betrayal with sympathy and grace.
The last lyrics, “The end of the something I did not want to end / Beginning of hard times to come. / But something that was not meant to be is done / And this is the start of what was” were instantly resonant and familiar. I’d heard them before, even repeated them to myself in the past. Delivered over a, unsteady guitar, they epitomize the moment that hopelessness meets with acceptance and cautious expectation, the thought at the second of sliding off a barstool to trudge home and sleep. It’s bleakly romantic, moving, and simple and although I knew it from somewhere else, Marshall made it sound new and all his own.
A little bit of research turned up further proof that Marshall’s careful to nod but not prostrate himself in front of his influences. The last line is swiped from the penultimate line from the climax of the Streets song, “Empty Cans,” from their album A Grand Don’t Come For Free. I should have known the song and line, I’ve loved the album and song for years, but King Krule presented it in such a way that was similar to the Streets’ story of betrayal and redemption while still being uniquely his. Marshall’s sly dedications and outright lifting of those legends before him are ambitious, cocky, and immensely clever. He’s not a historian, repeating and recording the achievements of others, he’s a student, using the past to give him leverage. He’s aiming to get in front of those obscure legends, not to kneel in front of their feet. If “Rock Bottom” is any indication, he has a very good shot at it.