From 2004’s gleefully weird The Man in a Blue Turban with a Face onward, every album from the Philadelphia wild men of Man Man has shown some marked improvement, a growth or maturation. 2006’s Six Demon Bag reigned in some of the looser material on their debut, as well as solidifying the “traditional” Man Man sound: skronky guitars, xylophones, Rhodes piano, horns, all drenched in raw, maniac enthusiasm. There were moments of Balkan-y acoustics, low waltzes, and pure bombastic insanity. 2008’s Rabbit Habits, however, seemed to do the impossible, somehow becoming more concise, more fluid, more structurally interesting, all without losing an ounce of the cracked energy that had propelled the band. The key elements of the sound were still there, as well as the whacked inclusion of fireworks and dogs barking, but there were also two seven minute plus tracks that played out gorgeously, the haunting, emotionally powerful lyrics vivid and idiosyncratic.
Altogether, it seemed that Man Man had discovered their individual sound first, and then went on to develop the epic songwriting to go along with the Tom Waits circus/madhouse pop they’d had all along. Then, once Rabbit Habits reached new heights in both halves of the equation (gaining some great critical attention and selling quite a bit), one had to wonder what would happen next. Well, it turns out that Life Fantastic is what’s next, and the big changes it brings to Man Man are a mixed bag.
One of the most apparent changes is in the production. While the band had largely run their own recordings in the past, this time they asked for help from Monsters of Folk member/Saddle Creek house producer Mike Mogis. It’s impossible to say whether Mogis had a hand in the extended use of string arrangements, the upright piano often replacing the honky tonk of the Rhodes, or the relative move away from the semi-Balkan textures. All these changes wouldn’t be as shocking as they are if the songs had sounded anything like those on their last record, which wouldn’t seem that unreasonable, considering the band’s ability to toss off genre accoutrements at will. Instead, Life Fantastic horns in on a few archetypes and sticks to them. According to a press release from band leader Honus Honus (AKA Ryan Kattner), Mogis largely was there to tell them when things were getting to be “a bit too much.” Considering the minor step backwards the album turns out to be, maybe Man Man is best suited to too much.
The robotic circus tones of “Knuckle Down” begins the album in somewhat familiar territory, thanks to a funky, head-bobbing rhythm from drummer Pow Pow, a skittering guitar line, weird backing vocal grunts, and Honus’ immediately recognizable, gravelly howl. “Piranhas Club”, which immediately follows, is another story. The offbeat, goofy lyrics (“Tear his limbs off!” grumbled lowly, “If you gotta punch your dad in the face to relax, think about it…then just do it, do do do it”), and mock girl group falsetto backing vocals are regular Man Man, but the straightforward, King Khan-style doo wop instrumentation just…isn’t weird enough. There aren’t as many moments of pure insanity, which isn’t to say it’s a bad song, it’s just not the Man Man they’ve given us in the past. The change isn’t ruining them, it just seems like they’re not embracing one of their strongest aspects as freely.
Later, “Dark Arts” provides one of the better high-energy blasts on the disc, the lyrics about coping with depression (“Mr. Dagger meet Mr. Back, inseparable, together at last”), the screaming chorus, the choppy synth all coming together to produce one of the most recognizably Man Man tracks. In that aforementioned press release, Honus had suggested that this album would be pretty dark lyrically, and he wasn’t kidding. “Steak Knives” depressingly looks at the qualifications of an ex’s new fiancee, “Haute Tropique” tells the tale of a cannibal gourmand (while also reviving the New Orleans graveyard slink that “Big Trouble” did so well on the last disc, thanks to some plinking marimba and well-placed horns), and “Shameless” is the mourning of a rejected love and ensuing depression (“I want you so bad I can’t stand the man that I am”).
Live staple “Spooky Jookie” finally makes it to record here, but it’s slowed down to a strut and given a string section and prominent flute courtesy of Chang Wang. The 40-second long incidental, slinky “Eel Bros” sounds like a lost theme from Super Mario Bros., or maybe Yoshi’s Island. “Bangkok Necktie” features a memorable guitar line, thumping percussion, and more guts, lyrically (“I left my heart out on the table”). Honus seems to have latched onto the image of violence and gore representing the exposure of inner being.
The title track’s descriptions of tragic, apocalyptic scenarios and ripsaw guitar solo set a climactic end, preparing for the cutesy ode to the La Brea tar pits, “Oh! La Brea”. The album’s closing track compares suffering with the tar pits, the containment of past lives deep down in the murky depths. The insane, unbridled howl returns to the mix, as well as the cute mock girl group falsetto, but this time drenched in strings. While in some ways this is the same Man Man, there are some key moments of difference. Most of these differences seem to be a shift away from the chaotic, from the purely weird (remember “Fishstick Gumbo”?). Perhaps because of that, there are some moments of fresh maturity here (particularly “Shameless” and “Life Fantastic”), but none that top the mature moments on the last album (“Poor Jackie” and “Whalebones”), as well as not producing any fun jams as good as the last album’s.