Berlin will play host to two truly stand-out acts this month. Listen to either of them once, and it will be immediately apparent that neither one sounds at all like the other, but listen to them both for long enough, and you might well notice that they make you feel somewhat similar. Theirs is music for long, introspective nights and still longer days of suffocating boredom. At times like those, a good storyteller is worth their weight in gold, and in King Krule and Big Thief, we have two of the greatest songwriters in a generation.
Fans of King Krule will tell you that far from just carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, Archy Marshall seems to relish it. When a nineteen-year-old Marshall released his debut album in 2013, it was hard to match the sonorous voice to the razor-thin and rakish redhead. Somewhere between raking gravel and spitting feathers, Marshall’s voice lumbers out of him in a louche drawl and falls onto his songs like a brick into a reservoir; a characteristic plunge. Since then, the gruff indie icon has ascended the ranks to become one of the world’s most cognizant storytellers. Often and rightly lauded as a singular songwriting talent, Marshall daubs his songs with the kind of rib-sticking dolour that could seem excessive if his production didn’t offset it so perfectly. Stylish yet understated, 2017’s The Ooz was brimming with nuanced jazzy beats and gurgling psychedelic pads, masterfully condensed into one of the albums of the decade.
On this year’s Man Alive! Marshall’s swampy lo-fi beats and blues belie an artist who appears to be thawing into his creative peak. Amid the laudanum clag that clings to low-slung singles such as “Alone, Omen 3”, there is a sense of new life in a sound-palette derived from rigor mortis. It’s not that Marshall is going soft on us, but rather he seems more able to draw on a deeper pool of experience for his storytelling these days. And in doing so, he is emerging from a winter of his own making and into a promising new spring.
On the other side, there is Big Thief. Headed by the frighteningly prolific Adrianne Lenker, Big Thief are a fan’s dream. Only ever stopping their round-the-world tours to record new music, which they also do with frenetic pace, Lenker’s band are storytellers of a remarkably different kind. Where King Krule’s authenticity is bred out of the self-indulgent neo-noir of a prescient artist dragged up in the odium of suburban London, Lenker’s, you feel, arises from simple universal pleasures like campfires and road trips. Wholesome would be the word, but then again, wholesome never seemed to feel so visceral. It is that tradeoff that is at the heart of Big Thief.
Lenker builds worlds of minute, personal and emotional details that soar on the hushed tones of the supernatural. With each passing album, Lenker condenses generations worth of lived experience into the terrarium of sentiment that only she and her bandmates alone could propagate.
In 2019, the band brought out U.F.O.F. and Two Hands; the full-length albums were released a scant five months apart and both topped almost every year-end list out there. The Brooklynite quartet has not been around long, but in that scant time they have developed a devoted following, and it is easy to see why. Their folk-tinged indie feels as organic and as close to the listener as it would if you had made it yourself. It is lush and full, and it strolls unopposed to its crescendos, whispered as they are in gossamer minor-keys.
King Krule | Columbiahalle, Kreuzberg. Mar 8, 20:00.
Big Thief | Astra Kulturhaus, Friedrichshain. Mar 9, 19:00.