Archy Marshall, the gangly, redheaded adolescent who records as King Krule, looks sort of like Archie Andrews on the worst day of his life. He’s pale, sallow-skinned, and pretty much every picture of the kid finds him skulking in an oversized coat or sweater. Still, the amount of misery he can convey in a press photo is nothing compared to what he can do with his voice, a drawling baritone that’s almost comically mismatched to his slight frame. His thick accent and unpolished (to be charitable) delivery recall first-gen Brit-punks like Billy Bragg and Joe Strummer, but his music is most definitely not punk. Which isn’t to say that I know exactly what it is. In just 13 minutes, the five-track King Krule manages to cover a lot of sonic territory, with Marshall raising his lo-fi flag over non-contiguous styles like jazz, ’60s pop, and East Coast hip-hop (the muscular beat on “Noose of Jah City” sounds more apiece with DJ Premier’s ’90s work than with anything London’s current crop of dubsteppers would come up with).
Though he’s only 17 years old, Marshall’s production style is already mature and well-realized. Grimy and heavy with reverb, it sounds introspective but distinctively urban. But with the exception of “Noose” and the dub-tinged “Bleak Bake,” the EP offers little demonstration that Marshall has the melodic sensibility to match his ear for evocative rhythms. The tracks here are certainly cool, frequently gorgeous, but seldom memorable, and even if this isn’t the type of music that needs to be embellished with hooks or overt choruses, it’s still too easy to see the whole thing as an especially ambitious spoken-word act. Marshall does have a poet’s gift for imagery, and he frequently presents a shocking scene—he’s covered in blood on one song, being eaten away at (by what?) on another— before trailing off into unintelligibility, leaving the listener’s imagination and, of course, the nearly lyrical productions to fill in the blanks.
I find that oddly admirable. Marshall can’t have been making music for long, and given the amount of hype that followed his performance at this year’s CMJ Festival, it would be tempting for him to overplay his hand. Instead, he’s made a few patient, deliberate expansions of his sonic world and rewarded fans for their interest by letting them flip through his sketchbook. That shows restraint in a time when artists often make waves by committing to an angle, identity, or gimmick before they’ve got the musical chops to back it up. We’ll get a proper debut when Marshall’s ready, and I have a hard time imagining it won’t impress.