Over the course of three full-length albums, Philadelphia’s Man Man have crafted a niche through their exuberant live shows and novel songs, perhaps being unfairly pigeon-holed for the same reasons they gained any popularity whatsoever. Still, their albums receive acclaim, but due to a rather lengthy three-year absence since Rabbits Habits, their new effort Life Fantastic seems to be striking the media as a low-importance release, and perhaps drawing some ambivalence within the indie-listening community. This is unfortunate, as Life Fantastic is not just more of the same. While the record does contain the band’s trademark irreverence, carnival-like soundscapes, and drugged-out imagery, there is a new sense of maturity throughout Life Fantastic, and even stranger, it suits the band.
Produced by Bright Eyes’ Mike Mogis, the coherence of Life Fantastic offers a stark contrast to the band that is typically spastic, who can rarely be extracted from their war paint and children’s toys that are incorporated into their performance. The controlled-chaos element seems to be cooled down by Mogis, allowing the songwriting to take center stage, rather than the antics and craziness. This transition is evident from minute one, on album opener “Knuckle Down,” which begins with a prevalent keyboard riff that seems pulled from Spencer Krug’s catalog. As the song unfolds, Man Man frontman Honus Honus seems focused and direct, allowing the rest of the band and the various distractions to land as subtleties, rather than the focus they can often become. It might be the best Man Man song yet.
Of course, a more mature Man Man doesn’t mean a boring or serious affair. “Piranhas Club” is a mini-party in and of itself, spouting the refrain “I’m not a barracuda, even though I flash my teeth/Throw me to piranhas, if you a wanna be with me.” The song is cartoonish in its longing, but again, Honus’ vocal idiosyncrasies (the “do do do do it” part, his soulful falsetto squeal) make the song something special. Elsewhere, “Shameless,” the album’s nearly seven-minute centerpiece, drops the cartoonish longing for plain-old regular longing. However, nothing besides the sentiment of “Shameless” is plain or regular. The song shifts rapidly through memorable vocal lines and melodic shifts, finding Man Man to be at its most emotionally affecting. Nothing about the repeated claim “I want you so bad that I can’t stand the man I am,” seems melodramatic or insincere. It seems heartfelt and direct, allowing the listener to see a little more of Honus Honus’ heart than is usually on display.
Standouts continue over the course of Life Fantastic, including the infectious title-track and the sing-along ready “Bangkok Necktie,” building to what could have been a triumphant conclusion and, perhaps, the group’s best album. Unfortunately, closer “Oh, La Brea” is maimed by a directionless first-half (though, it finds redemption in its quite beautiful instrumental conclusion) and leaves the senstation of longing with the audience that has been so ingrained in the album’s lyrics. But, Life Fantastic cannot be brought down by this or any other minor faults. Though it may not be treated as an important album in the broader scope of music, it is an important album for Man Man, and one that is likely to age gracefully, just as Man Man appear to be doing. Life Fantastic points toward the possibility of even greater albums ahead, and given the strength of Man Man’s output so far, this truly is fantastic.