Aligned for the first time in their career with a real live, in-the-flesh producer (that being Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes and Saddle Creek Records), Philly indie experimentalists Man Man have removed the toys and the whistles that typified their earlier releases, and on Life Fantastic sound—dare I say it?—mature. Of course, they maintain the densely-packed madcap pop ethic that made their 2006 sophomore offering, Six Demon Bag, and the latter half of 2008’s Anti- debut, Rabbit Habbits, so visceral, and as ever, much of that comes down to vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and principal songwriter Ryan “Honus Honus” Kattner.
To complement the cinematic feel of a string-laden song like Life Fantastic centerpiece, “Shameless” (an epic journey at 6:45), Kattner has concocted some of his darkest, bleakest lyrics to date, and where in lesser hands, a line like “How the fuck did I live this long this way?” from “Dark Arts” might be corny or ham-fisted, from Man Man, it’s downright malevolent. A description of a mother hacking up her offspring into “dead daughter confetti” on “Haute Tropique” isn’t exactly Cannibal Corpse in terms of graphic depictions, but offset by xylophone accompaniment and the samba/waltz horns, it more than gets the job done.
And most strikingly, it does so with a clear sense of purpose. Of course, Man Man’s maturity has to come at the cost of some of the chaos that seemed to be behind their earlier material, but Life Fantastic makes a good case for the streamlined, accomplished outfit behind a song like its title-track or “Spooky Jookie” as being even more lethal. I guess it’s the difference between being stuck in the jungle with a tiger that’s got claws or a tiger with laser vision: Either way you’re pretty much screwed.