You probably know the leader of Man Man by his stage name, Honus Honus. But his real name is Ryan Kattner, and it seems fitting that, for discussion of Life Fantastic, we go by his Christian name.
I say that because, well, this shit is personal — wounded, raw, deeply hurt. If 2006’s Six Demon Bag — Man Man’s breakout record — was dark and unpredictable, it was a dark and unpredictable performance, like the Bedlam community theatre or something. Then, we dealt in kooky dramatics, in suspension of disbelief, in the false danger of “Engwish Bwudd.”
On Life Fantastic, though, the blood is very real. Kattner had, since 2008’s Rabbit Habits, lost love and lost friends to tragic deaths. The bills were piling up and music wasn’t helping pay them, and it all came together when an electrician found him drinking in his scattered apartment, scrawling new lyrics on the walls. This album represents that severe break, that rock bottom. Kattner and his band have taken all that darkness and made an affecting but often terrifying sense out of it.
The irony here is that this is Man Man’s most straightforward album yet. The circus-y antics are dialed way down, and though their irrepressible energy goes, well, unrepressed here, it’s got a clarity and tunefulness they haven’t quite achieved yet. It can only be so straighforward with these guys, of course, but look at how the title track builds on one set of drums and a clean piano line. Even when it erupts, it bursts in the kind of guitar solos, horn vamps, and feedback squalls we recoginize as part of modern rock music. They do it with their own flair, but this isn’t the left-field clattering of “Banana Ghost.” In fact, the most surprising parts of Life Fantastic may be when it becomes quiet and tender. “Steak Knives” is spare and heartbreaking. “Everybody says that I’m a fool,” Kattner pines, “for loving you.” It feels so exposed, and would maybe be too awkward if the vocal harmonies on the chorus weren’t so bracing, even hopeful, if only for a moment.
Elsewhere, Kattner lashes out at all that pain. On “Knuckle Down” he promises to “polish [his] boots with your lover’s blood.” On “Haute Tropique” a mother chops up her kids with a machete and then “threw a party with dead-daughter confetti.” If he can’t have the love he wants, he wishes she would “feed [him] to piranhas,” and at one point he begs a doctor to cut him open if only to feel the pain and (secondly) to route around in him and find where it comes from.
This would all make for a difficult listen if the songs weren’t so good. “Shameless” is an epic track in the middle of it, both directly beautiful and full of tumbling, raucous crescendos. It also offers a slight counterbalance to all the violence of the record. “Oh my, oh on, how can I be so shameless?” Kattner wonders, mostly pondering how he let himself get so involved with the wrong person, but that also resonates with how deeply he dives into grief. The process seems necessary, cathartic even, if only because it so willingly embraces the darkness.
So while the songs may seem borderline psychotic at moments, the bright zeal of their delivery and the band’s careful crafting imply some moving on. This isn’t indulgence in pain so much as it is a full-hearted recognition of its power. The album may not have the double-take-inducing eccentricities of past Man Man records, but what you get instead is a focused and emotionally charged set of songs that maintain the band’s live energy as much as any studio recording can. For his sake, I hope to write about Honus Honus again sometime soon, but in the meantime it’s a staggering but often beautiful thing to get a glimpse off Andy Kattner on Life Fantastic, even if it is one this haunting. Luckily, the strings that close the album on “Oh, La Brea” sure hint at something brighter, so here’s hoping that these songs getting out into the world is the last step down the album’s shadowy path.