Column 323: The Silver Lining of Man Man’s Dark Cloud
by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com
If you look closely during Sunday night’s Man Man show at Slowdown, you might be able to glimpse the monster sitting on the edge of the stage.
It’s an insidious little guy who spends most of its time living inside Man Man frontman Ryan Kattner’s head. But when Kattner’s on stage with his comrades in arms, the monster is forced to make a brief exit, a momentary expulsion that frees the man also known as Honus Honus. It’s a public exorcism. But it’s short-lived. After the show is over, when Kattner climbs back into the van, the monster will be there with him. It’s always there.
I suppose you and I would call the monster “dread” or “anxiety” or “The Black Cloud.” It is what motivated the creation of Man Man’s just-released dark opus, the ironically titled Life Fantastic, a gruesome corpse deceptively packaged in a brightly colored box.
For instance, take a song like the rollicking staccato pop of “Dark Arts” a whirling carnival ride of keyboards that gallops along with a smile that masks lyrics like: “And I hate my head / So I bury it in the sand / If I razor cut some bangs / Will I forget who I am? / Staring at the man who’s in the mirror / And how the fuck did I live this long this way?” topped with the line “Mister dagger, meet mister back, inseparable, together at last.”
Then there’s the gorgeous, strutting title track, rife with strings and electric guitar, with Kattner growling the lines “And the scene, it turns so grisly / And the children, they are crying / You hand them black umbrellas / Tell ’em that the world is dying.” Macabre, a self-loathing nightmare, a salty dose of gothic reality. Kattner said it and the rest of Life Fantastic are the product of a dark period in his life haunted by personal tragedy, heartbreak, death and the IRS, a deep hole that drove him to a point where even music couldn’t provide a necessary escape.
“It’s funny, because in the past, I was able to take bad situations and turn them into something creative,” explained Kattner on his Myspace page. “This time I couldn’t at all. I felt nothing, which was worse than feeling miserable or depressed.”
After months of literally wandering homeless across the U.S., Kattner got his shit together and started putting it all down in his music. Now a year after cutting the tracks for Life Fantastic with local production genius Mike Mogis at ARC studios, Man Man is on the road again, the only place where Kattner said he can make the dark cloud go away.
“It’s lifted because we’re on tour,” he said last Sunday while driving up the West Coast toward Seattle. “Things are OK, but nothing ever really corrected itself. It’s just kind of easier. It was a lot to deal with, stuff everyone has to deal with most of their lives, friends passing away and long relationships ending, all at once. That’s the cool thing about this record — the songs’ impetus came from some dark place, but they can have a different effect on people that listen to them. Some songs come off as joyous, but there’s a dark, rich center.”
Kattner said without his music, he would have ended up “a dried out puddle, a love-stashed skeleton.”
The obvious question had to be asked: If the songs are the product of a dark time in his life, doesn’t performing them merely cause him to relive it all again, night after night?
“Good point,” Kattner said. “So do the other records. When I’m performing them, it’s sort of like an exorcism that gets it out of my system and sets it on the side of the stage. But when I’m not touring and playing shows, the monster stews.”
As witnesses can attest, Kattner’s nightly exorcism in Man Man is a spectacle. The five-man band comes out appropriately dressed all in white, wearing white warpaint, and takes their positions behind various instruments and noise makers. There they perform a concert that’s akin to a rock ritual.
Despite the gloom, Life Fantastic may be Man Man’s most accessible album in a history that stretches back to 2004’s The Man in a Blue Turban with a Face. But even during that record’s most dissonant moments, a lustrous pop center shines through. That luster is simply more visible on the new album. Some point to Mogis for this, but Kattner said the wizard who helped create some of Bright Eyes’ finest moments was more like a guide during the recording process.
“We went to Omaha with all the songs intact,” Kattner said. “Mike was great organizing the ideas.
“This is a deceptive album,” he added. “People think it sounds really polished, really studio-y, but it’s really sneaky when you listen to what the songs are about. It’s a real grower.”
He’s not concerned fans of the band’s earlier, rowdier stuff might think it’s too lush. “I don’t care if they do,” he said. “Every album has a narrative and story. You have to grow. I’m not going to write the same songs that I wrote when I was 22. I can’t.”
Man Man plays with Shilpa Ray & Her Happy Hookers this Sunday, May 22, at Slowdown. Tickets are $15, show starts at 9 p.m.
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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2011 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.