When my grandfather passed away in 2002, I witnessed my grandmother cry, sob in fact, and intone, “What will I do now?” The moment was so raw, intimate, and completely out of character for a tough and life hardened 85 year old Irish woman, who had buried her first three children as infants, that I didn’t know where to look. I shuffled uneasily, and, to my eternal shame, cowardly looked away, frightened by her vulnerability and visceral honesty.
Listening to Working Out, the debut album by King of Cats (Brighton/Oxford singer songwriter Max Levy) is a similarly intimate, uncomfortable, and unsettling experience. The effect is created by three factors: the lo-fi nature of the recording; the straight forward, unapologetic, and unguarded lyrics, and the potentially divisive proposition of Levy’s distinctive vocal style.
Apparently, the record was recorded “by Johnathan Coddington in a big room with crystals”, and, while this is probably not strictly true, it may as well have been for all the sophistication the recordings possess. The sound of the record is the definition of a DIY bedroom recording. The tape hisses; the recording clicks stop at the end of a track. It imbues Levy’s already tender songs (“Arthritis”, “Dr. Strangelove”) with a delicate fragility that heightens the sense that the performance may unravel in emotion at any given moment, while gifting the louder parts of “Swelling Up”, “Ulcers” etc. with extra glorious impact. It encourages the listener to listen intently, as the feeling pervades that there may only be one opportunity to hear the oddly endearing noises emanating from your speakers.
Levy’s lyrics are remarkably blunt, and damaged. Take “Arthritis” for instance, when Levy mourns: “And you still get regretful when you walk past baby food at the 24 hour off licence”. The line is simple enough, but it possesses an intimacy and poignancy. Why does the person get regretful? Was it an abortion, or a miscarriage? These details are immaterial; the rawness and bluntness of the words are paramount. Images of innocence and privacy are crafted with simplicity, as on “Chugger”: “I bet you six pounds, you’d get what you wanted… But we sat in your car and listened to Marilyn Manson”. It is the ordinary details that add gravity, and realism to Levy’s words.
However, it is Levy’s vocal performance that will determine whether one enjoys King of Cats’ debut or not. Coming across like a rawer, more troubled, Joanna Newsom, Levy’s style is undoubtedly unique. The delivery wavers, and is not particularly proficient, adding an honesty, and immediacy to tracks like the 90s indie noise-pop of “Dead Lamb” and the bludgeoning “Swelling Up”. In places, the raw screams are unnerving in their delivery and obvious authenticity. “Brasso” descends into throat ripping screams of “I’m sorry”, after which the music dies and one more exclamation escapes his lips. It is both transfixing and repulsive.
Unfortunately, as my grandmother’s outpouring of emotion terrified my 17 year old self, there is a solid chance that Levy’s disquieting honesty, as exemplified in his vocal performance, will frighten off some less adventurous listeners. But those who remain and actually listen will hear the inner sounds of another human being’s soul.
How often does that happen?