King of Cats // Working Out
Recommended Track: Ulcers
Some kinds of outsider art present the artist not only as an outsider to the community at large but also as an outsider in his or her own emotional or physical state. The latter often results in a palpable tension throughout the piece of art and within it one can read or hear the struggle of not just artist vs. the world but artist vs. him or herself. The debut record by King of Cats (the nomme de musique of Brighton-cum-Oxford songwriter Max Levy whose live band features Owen Williams of Joanna Gruesome and Grubs), Working Out, beautifully, painfully, humorously, and staggeringly illustrates and dramatizes this very specific type of outsider art. This is a record for the genius who thinks he’s an idiot; this is the record for the artist who thinks she’s a hack. This record is so powerful that in its attempt to screech, scream, and sing about one’s own struggle within not only a society with hegemonic heteronormative expectations that act to constantly marginalize the OTHER but also one’s struggle within the body, Working Out manages to create a space for the outsider to call home. That is: in dramatizing the struggle, confusion, and pain of being an outsider, Max Levy has created his very own world in which he is no longer an outsider looking in but a king of his own twisted, warped, and breathtaking domain.
The principle image on Working Out is that of the body: the cover is an image of what we can assume is Levy’s gut and upper body with the band and album name written in green marker across his stomach (the album is literally written on the body), and the lyrics are replete with a desire to be picked up and put down, crippling arthritis, ulcers on tongues, big bellies, hairy bodies, and other anatomical viscera. The body, then, becomes Levy’s metaphor for the struggle of feeling like an outsider: a clear and sharp mind tethered to expression by a feeble and often disappointing body. This tension is reflected in the Levy’s voice and his musical accompaniment as well. Album opener “Orb Weaver” is a gentle and straightforward ballad of sorts; Levy’s Jeff Mangum-on-acid reedy shrill thrill of a voice warbles along on top of a clean and almost absent-mindedly strummed electric guitar while plaintive but beautiful female vocals chime and dance behind Levy, crafting a beautiful yin and yang of the abrasive and the soothing. The lyrics to “Orb Weaver” thematize the contents of the album as a whole and the song ends with Levy’s voice piercing the silence, addressing some unknown listener: “Hairy body, callous head; when you look at me I wish that you were dead.”
The rest of the album is as refreshing and surprising at every turn as any DIY pop record has been in years: “Brasso” is largely Levy singing over some kind of small toy organ; “Dr. Strangelove” features a distant-sounding filtered guitar and an eerie, almost X-Files-esque whistle throughout. But the album standout comes when King of Cats manage to turn pure pop on its head with the bizarrely anthemic “Ulcers.” It’s difficult to really say much about this song except that it is unfailingly infectious: from Levy’s lyrics about chewing on your cheeks to his bug-eyed throaty shouts of “Disappointment, disappointment!”; from the almost lilty melody of the verses to the pounding riff of the instrumental choruses; from the hushed bridge that crashes to a climax of swirling distorted chords and Levy bellowing from the back of his mouth in a scream that would give even Lonesome Crowded West-era Isaac Brock goosebumps — this song is just a fucking hit. And like any stellar hit, it hits you fucking hard. I want to stand right up front and stare Max Levy, this shy, nervous, shivering, self-doubting, self-loathing genius dead in the eyes and shout as loud as he does.
Like most singular works of stunning and arresting quality, Working Out is fucked up and beautiful, and those two qualities twirl and twin, feeding off of each other at every turn. Whether it’s the manic swell of “Swelling Up” or the throat-shredding yelps in the otherwise-sparse “Letters Under the Knife,” King of Cats show us that to be fucked up is to be beautiful, and to be beautiful is fucked up. And that chill down your spine as “Chugger” chugs the record to a sublime and overwhelming close is your heart and your mind working out which is really which.
King of Cats is one of a lose-knit collective of bands in the UK associated with stand-out DIY labels Art is Hard and Reeks of Effort (who came together to release this album). Both labels are consistently putting out groundbreaking and incredibly innovative music and are double-handedly redefining what DIY and punk means in the UK’s youth culture and beyond. I highly recommend digging deep into both labels and continuing to support them by buying their records.