Archy Marshall is 21 years old, but you wouldn’t know it to listen to him. He first started releasing stark, heartfelt songs five years ago while he was a student at the BRIT School for Performing Arts in Croydon, south-east London. He astonished listeners with his voice, an unexpectedly deep baritone for someone so slight and scrappy. Like a lot of teenagers, he experimented with showing one face to the world then another: first as Zoo Kid, then DJ JD Sports and Edgar the Beatmaker. But most people know him as King Krule, and it was the debut album he put out under that name, “6 Feet Beneath the Moon”, that won him a nomination for the BBC’s Sound of 2013. On his ambitious second album, released last week, the personas have been shed. The voice on “A New Place 2 Drown” belongs to Archy Marshall and to him alone. It’s a kind of coming-of-age – but one whose power is diminished by the way the record’s murky sounds submerge his vocals.
“A New Place 2 Drown” isn’t just an album. A multimedia project by Archy and his brother Jack, it comprises three different things: a book containing Archy’s lyrics, Jack’s illustrations and photos of their life in south London; the album, cast as the soundtrack to the book; and a short film, which revisits the places and people captured by the photos, occasionally superimposes Jack’s illustrations over these images, and sets it all to Archy’s music. The film is superior to the book: it showcases both brothers’ art and conjures a mood of street-wise noir, doing in five minutes what the book struggles to do in over 100 pages. While it’s a treat to see Archy in the flesh – talking, singing, horsing around – it’s odd that although we see Jack, we never hear him. His fingerprints are all over the book, with its strange and intriguing cartoons and graffiti. Leafing through the pages, every now and then you happen upon one of Archy’s poems or songs. He has an ear for a phrase. On the King Krule track “Baby Blue” he sings, “My sandpaper sigh/engraves a line/into the rust of your tongue”. But lyrics that are sung are not the same as stanzas that are read. On the page, his verses lack rhythm. Poetry they are not.
But it’s a testament to the power of his voice that he can lift lines that seem lumpen or overwrought. On “Swell” he sings, “Well I might have found a new place to drown/My sorrows and everything else/Fuck! My mental health!/Went down the drain as well!” Surrounded by doodles in the book, these verses read like melodramatic juvenilia, but on the album Archy delivers them with visceral emotion. He quietly mumbles, as if in an aside to himself, then drags out the “well” so that it sounds like the anguish has caught in his throat. The way he sings them, these lines have the ring of truth.
But the moments when his vocals come to the fore are disappointingly rare. We seem to have caught him at home, murmuring about love and loss, “guilt and urges”, but often these murmurs sink beneath the album’s laconic beat. On “Eye’s Drift” you can hardly even hear his languorous monotone. His album as King Krule took a different approach. Whereas “A New Place 2 Drown” wallows in its influences – jazz fusion and 1990s East Coast hip hop – “6 Feet Beneath the Moon” put Archy’s raw, bruised howl centre-stage. That was a good call. At it’s best, his voice can cut like a blunt knife and then, if you’re nice, lick your wounds.
A New Place 2 Drown Out now