by Dylan Pennell (@dylan_pennell)
King Khan has always felt like a strong personality in the world of garage rock and my first impression of him helped solidify that at the 2008 Pitchfork Music Festival when Khan, Bradford Cox, and Jay Reatard took to the side stage in lieu of a belated Cut Copy. The three bandied about the stage riffing (both literally and comically), jamming, with a brief aside in which Reatard sodomized himself with the butt end of a flower stem. They were jesters of indie rock on that night and they brandished the scepter with relish.
So when, eight years on, I read the following excerpt from a 2015 King Khan and BBQ Show interview with Louder Than War, I finally fully understood the persona Khan had developed.
Have you anything else you’d like to tell us about?
Mark Sultan: Listen and love music. But know where it comes from. Who is risking what? What influenced them? It’s easy to consume music as fast food. But music is a very magickal and precious resource. It’s individual and comes from the soul. All I ask is that people invite songs into their hearts and let them grow there. If something moves you in this lifetime, it’s rare. Lock it away and pass it down. Don’t just chomp it and shit it. You’ll be happier.
KK: Yes, Crunch Crunch!!!!
Whereas Mark Sultan - the titular “BBQ” sincerely bemoans the gluttony taking place on streaming platforms and across torrent sites worldwide, Khan’s onomatopoeic response reads like the devil on the listener’s shoulder, practically goading you to keep consuming music. While he obviously supports Sultan’s sentiments, his brief emphatic crunching is reflective of the trouble-making trickster persona he has cut out for himself over the years. His music has followed suit too: rambunctious and itchy garage rock nuggets designed to keep the party moving at a pace. Since his rise to notoriety Khan has barely given himself space to take a breath between leading ten-piece bands, mooning Lindsay Lohan, and maybe-or-maybe-not having a project with the GZA.
Up until this point, a King Khan project read like an album-length celebration - the band and Khan drunkenly celebrating while trying to recreate some of their favorite Motown-inflected garage bands. The hallmarks of 60s music has all been explicit: the “Roll Over Beethoven” soloing, trash-can-lid drums, romance, heartbreak, and melodies for days.
It’s because of Khan’s history that his most recent release, the daftly titled Murderburgers, stands in such unique and aching contrast to not only his body of work, but also his personality as the devil-on-your-shoulder id-rider of the garage scene. Fresh off of a productive 2016 in which Khan churned out a series of singles seemingly designed to up the production quality and expand his stylistic ambitions as a songwriter came the string-laden ache of waltz “Never Hold On,” arguably his most beautiful song, to the sensual sighs and oddball pop of his collaborations with Polish singer/actress Natalia Avelon, to the nocturnal funk of “Children of the World,” and all the old school Khan throwbacks in between. This new album stands as a consolidation and transmogrification of not only these new styles, but also the point at which the trickster uses his past bag of influences as a means of tapping into an emotionality previously unheard in his work.
The album begins by falling not too far from the firmly established tree of King Khan patina. Both the music and ragged reluctant vocals of “Discreate Disguise” paint an image of a drunken wayfarer stumbling through the batwing doors of a South Western bar, leaving them swinging in his wake. The Henry Mancini via Reservoir Dogs reverb intones to give this debauched guest an air of mystery which is quickly revealed to be thinly veiled regret and wistfulness: “With all your tattooed arms/With all your painted eyes/With all your broken charms/Is this your discreet disguise?" Khan questioningly croons at the itinerant bar-dweller’s forlorn nature. Come the song’s outro, the guitar practically spills the subject’s guts all over, revealing his/her barely-kept slippery blues with a minute's worth of lovely guitar sighs.
This image of a wayfaring stranger continues to stick come the album’s Dylan-indebted second track “It’s Just Begun,” a lovely, lonely rumination on impending doom. Beginning with a rambling piano melody and the rusty ramble of Khan’s best Dylan impression - which is solidified as homage when Khan himself winkingly imbues the word “Blue” with the very same earnest heartache that Dylan once did - it quickly becomes the highlight of the record and the most deeply felt vocal performance on the album. Despite the inherent resignation of the lyrics and music here, the song manages to stay buoyant and energetic in a way that his records typically are not. While past albums have all been content to soundtrack a ramshackle party, this acknowledgement of inner turmoil amongst himself and his song’s protagonists, set to more plaintive music, almost serves to give his songs an energy previously lacking. It’s as if expressing the futility of “the war,” whether personal or political, and its constant state of Orwellian advent somehow makes the fact that you can joyfully bob your head along to the song all the more euphoric.
The opening trio of songs actually serves to make for the most narratively-minded Khan record thus far, as the song’s deal with heartbreak of various designs, but unlike in past efforts, the music yearns along with Khan. “Run Doggy Run” takes a carnival doo-wop verse and quickly morphs into “Be My Baby’s” savior of a backbeat for the chorus. Lyrically, Khan is dealing with an uncontrollable love, regrettably compared to a dog, that the narrator wistfully recounts and mourns the loss of. However, by the song’s end Khan is moaning in relief as he lets the rock n’ roll soloing fly, indicating that Khan might be feeling more reflective these days, but he isn’t going to let it completely ruin his party. The triumphant and emphatic solo juxtaposed with the feeling of longing in the song’s first half establish the dichotomy that this entire record seems intent on justifying. So, sure, that lonely vagabond who just wandered in might be a picture of desperation and ruin, but he isn’t entirely ready to give up the ghost.
From there the album runs back and forth between melancholy desert listlessness (“Desert Mile,” “Too Hard and Too Fast”) and Stooges-style rave up rockers (“Born in ‘77,” “Teeth are Shite”). Interestingly, the lateral movement of style is suggestive of progression on Khan’s part as he flirts with the ache of accumulated experiences and the subsequent exhaustion that a life of rock n’ roll partying can bring.
Appropriately bookending the latter part of the album is the glum “Winter Weather,” which apes some of the stark guitar stabs of early-period The Walkmen and effectively imbues the song with the same type of drunken shakiness Hamilton Leithauser’s characters are known to illustrate. While the backup vocals serve to shake the chilly vibrato of the organ and the guitar solo aims to lift the lethargic ponderousness of the narrator’s insistence that the end of the relationship is extremely nigh: “After all we’re almost done/Under the sunny summer sun,” the soothing imagery is contradicted by the forlorn sentiment. Given that this is the last track on the record, it’s hard to read it as anything but Khan saying “Sure, we’re having a nice time, but it’s not gonna last,” a conviction made no less stirring by the state of sociopolitical affairs in America in 2017.
All said and done, it would seem that the little devil of Khan’s past days exposing his ass and writing rawkus “rawk” are not over, but rather he has invited an ennui and melancholic voice to not only his lyrics and melodies, but also the spirit of them music itself. While this might disappoint some of the most ardent King Khan followers, it has luckily given the world the richest and most fully-realized album of his career. Unlike past Khan releases, which contain some blissful moments, but ultimately fall short of meaningful content outside of the typical pop realm, this record reveals a previously unmined depth to Khan’s persona and will certainly give fans much to chew on until his next release. Chomp chomp!!!