Man Man, more than any other band I can think of off the top of my head, requires you to be an active listener. They necessitate it. They won’t allow you, and you can’t allow yourself, to have a passive experience listening to their CDs. I fell into this trap myself, on my first spin of the band’s new album Life Fantastic. After a engaging, energizing opener “Knuckle Down,” I thought I heard the band slipping into their old, tried-and-true formula of “one weird song, one traditional song,” with the “traditional” songs usually ending up a bit boring and losing the listener after a minute. The album’s second song, “Piranhas Club,” sounds like a 60s surf-rock song. I imagined people hula-hooping on a beach as I strayed from the music, checking my email and paying my taxes online.
Something about that final hook in the song brought me back in, though. “I don’t want to be the stranger in your rear-view mirror / I just want to be the man you bring home again.” Those words don’t belong in a surf-rock song — because “Piranhas Club” isn’t a surf-rock song, and Man Man isn’t a surf-rock band. They’ve been described as “experimental” in their tamer reviews and as “Viking vaudeville” in their more experimental reviews. If there’s one thing frontman Honus Honus knows, decked out in his plain white polo and warpaint, it’s the pain of the human condition. Whether he’s telling you to tear your ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend’s limbs off (which he does about three-quarters of the way through “Piranhas Club”) or advising you that “If you gotta smash some plates to relax / I say do it,” there’s a type of desperation in Honus’s lyrics, an all-or-nothing mentality that you only find in a man beaten to his knees, looking for anything (even tearing someone’s limbs off) that might bring him back up again.
Something about Honus’s vocal styling lets him bark out utterly self-loathing lines that, from any other artist, I would immediately reject, but his voice sounds so broken that you allow yourself to believe him. About two and a half minutes into album opener “Knuckle Down” Honus reaches into his upper register and screams out “Hate you more than anything, ‘cause / you’re everything to me.” While usually those kinds of emotional breakdowns come a good 35 minutes into the album, Man Man goes the opposite route, charging in guns blazing, following up the opener with the equally impressive (and equally heartbreaking) “Piranhas Club.” “Dark Arts” has probably my favorite verse on the album, with Honus crooning “There must be something in the air / That’s making us all go crazy here / Our friends are either breeding, dying, / Or losing all their marbles trying.”
That said, there are times where the album stumbles over itself a bit. As a whole, it’s just so goddamn sad, and Man Man’s energetic style isn’t always the best vehicle to portray such heavy emotions. Man Man classics like “Black Mission Goggles” off their sophomore album Six Demon Bag feed on their vitality, whereas seven-minute centerpiece “Shameless” weaves in and out of three or four equally unimpressive, empty movements as Honus gets a bit too in-your-face as he barks “I want you so bad / I can’t stand / The man that I am.” Other songs on the album, like “Steak Knives” and “Haute Tropique,” feel a bit like filler songs, lacking the nuanced musical undertow that makes Man Man so unique.
Life Fantastic is Man Man’s first album with a bonafide producer in Mike Mogis (guitarist for Bright Eyes), and while it’s far-and-away their best produced, it’s also their most accessible, most stripped-down. It sounds a bit like Mogis told them to open up their sound a bit, get rid of the sousaphones and the veritable firecrackers that contributed to the depths of their previous albums, “limiting” the band to a more traditional drums/guitars/microphone/honky-tonk piano formula. Not that Man Man ever feel (or sound like they feel) in any way restricted or inhibited — penultimate title song “Life Fantastic” is the slowest, most spacious on the album, but also the most devastating, in a sneak-up-on-you-in-the-middle-of-the-night kind of way. Shades of the band’s 2006 anthem “Van Helsing Boombox” shine through before the music drops away entirely and the song abruptly ends. The album continues on and ends with the quaint-but-forgettable “Oh, La Brea,” as if they knew “Life Fantastic” was just too much to send us out on.
The weird thing is it doesn’t ever sound like Honus is in any way sarcastic or bitter. He closes up the title track with a “Life / so tragic… / life / fantastic…” and you know exactly what he means, can exactly relate to what he’s going through. It’s not a woe-is-me cry for help; it’s a state-of-the-union self-assessment. Honus recognizes that, yes, life is indeed tragic, but that’s precisely what makes it so fantastic, that he is still able to feel and hasn’t been diminished or left numb in any way by the tragedy. In “Piranhas Club” Honus explicitly tells the listener that “if you gotta punch your dad in the face / I say think about it. Do it.” The album’s full of these moments, these mini-epiphanies that Honus and the listener both need to grab and run with before they destroy themselves. Life Fantastic is Man Man’s most personal album to date, and with Honus’s lyric-writing prowess in full force, it feels great to hear more of Honus’s humanity in Man Man’s catalog.
Final grade: B+
Man Man will be playing with Shirla Ray And Her Happy Hookers at Metro on Tuesday, May 24. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $16 and can be purchased here.