In Viktor Frankl’s 1946 book, Man’s Search For Meaning, he reflects on his experiences as a Nazi concentration camp inmate and makes a case for “tragic optimism,” claiming humans benefit from remaining optimistic even when facing the worst tragedies. Such tragedies, Frankl argues, can lead to positive change and the creation of more meaningful ways of living; they require optimism, not despair.
A fitting subtitle for Man Man’s new album, Life Fantastic, would be “Man Man’s Search for Meaning.” Surging throughout this fourth studio release—out this week on -ANTI, it’s the Philly band’s first since 2008’s Rabbit Habits—is the spirit of tragic optimism. After suffering a near-fatal motorcycle accident (which he references on “Dark Arts”), and nomadically traversing cities while dealing with the deaths of friends and relationships, frontman Ryan “Honus Honus” Kattner took every fucked-up dish life crammed down his throat and transformed the maggoty bits into a life-affirming, celebratory musical odyssey.
On album opener “Knuckle Down,” an attempt at restarting a failed relationship turns him into “the type of man I despise,” and he dives into hell to seek advice from the devil. On “Piranhas Club,” he explores outlets for coping with the world’s never-ending “shitshow”: “If you gotta smash some plates to relax/ I say do it da da da da da do it.” He goes on to recommend driving a car into a lake, screaming until your voice breaks and dancing until the earth quakes.
On “Dark Arts,” he huffs glue and wine, chases lovers named after hurricanes, bangs his head and has a vision quest in which he rides a giant talking bat. “My friends are either breeding, dying, or losing all their marbles trying,” he howls before asking “How the fuck did I live this long, this way?” This sentiment returns on “Shameless,” leading to an important realization: “I spent too many nights without ever thinking maybe I’m a wrecking ball and I’m breaking all that I’m touching.”
Lyrically, it’s Kattner’s finest work: Each line’s a clever construction built on sincerity and snarling wit. The same goes for the music, as Man Man once again deliver compositions that dynamite genre-walls and sound nothing like their contemporaries.
Their signature multi-instrumental and polyrhythmic funhouse swirl returns with dangerous intensity, but with more precision—guided they were by indie producer extraordinaire and fourth member of Monsters of Folk, Mike Mogis—as they adventurously weave between Balkan punk, calypso, 8-bit NES warbles, big band blowouts, surf-pop, South African highlife, ecstatic handclap anthems, and, on “Steak Knives,” a heart-wrenching ballad reminiscent of Hank Williams Sr.’s “Ramblin’ Man.”
Despite swimming through a sea of life’s nastiest shit, it seems Kattner’s returned from the depths, not as a monster, but a wiser man. By reaching into the tragic void with an optimistic grin, Man Man have pulled out their strongest album so far. When Kattner sings “Life fantastic, life so tragic” on the title track, the emphasis is clearly on fantastic.
PW's Music Issue 2014