It makes sense that Ryan Kattner of Man Man would release his best album to date during a pandemic. His band persona, Honus Honus, is perpetually down on his luck — bizarre and lovelorn, lonely and insane — haunted. In short, he’s all of us right now.
Dream Hunting in the Valley of the In-Between starts with a fake-out, a gorgeous instrumental called “Dreamers” that would fit perfectly in a Fifties Disney movie: a tune for Peter Pan to chase his shadow to. That segues into the cacophonous intro to “Cloud Nein” — reminiscent of Man Man’s early days of skronky snake charmer horns and brittle, Tom Waits piano. The intro is a fake-out, too, though — as “Cloud Nein” swaggers forth into a jazzy, theatrical pop song about the end of the world: “Nothing ever lasts/Haven’t you learned this by now?” Honus croons as if chiding us for attempting to pin him down. There’s only one thing for certain when it comes to the frontman/pianist: his ability to write a damn good pop song.
Dream Hunting is Man Man’s sixth album and their first in seven years — with Honus Honus the only OG member. As such, it stands as the fully erect caveman to earlier efforts’ sea monkeys (not that those weren’t good). Man Man started out a clattering art-punk kind of outfit, dressed in tennis whites, facepaint and feathers — bleating about “Spider Cider,” giants (“Engwish Bwudd,” both off of 2006’s Six Demon Bag) and mustaches a-plenty (“10lb Moustache,” off 2004’s The Man in a Blue Turban with a Face).
Still, there was always a dash of real-life heartache in the morass of monsters: 2006’s “Van Helsing Boombox” is a standout, with Honus moaning: “I want to sleep for weeks like a dog at her feet/cven though I know it won’t work out in the long run.” This mix of the grotesque and the gorgeous has served Man Man well through the years — and with Dream Hunting, they’ve reached the ideal mix: more gorgeous than grotesque, more raw than ragged.
Man Man gets close to exploring full-on heartbreak this time around, with breakup track “On the Mend” melding romantic misadventure with cabaret piano and undulating horns, the percussion reminiscent of coconut shell horse hooves: “And though I see your heart is on the mend again,” Honus sings in his ragged showman voice, “How did it happen?/It should have been different this time.” The fourth track, “Lonely Beuys,” boasts a title and tone reminiscent of saying “I love you” in a silly voice. The sentiment is there — Kattner/Honus is lonesome — but he’s not going to get too serious about it. On “Hunters,” though, he just lays it out: “Wish you were stronger/you’d learn to love to be alone.”
Elsewhere, Honus’ lyrical dexterity is on full display — as is his musical alacrity. Ode to originality “Future Peg” somehow makes a chorus about a two-by-four catchy, and the silly interlude “Goat” turns salmonella into a Tim Burton-scored tango. Then there’s “Powder My Wig,” which somehow transforms from a Bowie-esque jam reminiscent of “Let’s Dance” into something akin to Dick Dale fronting an oompah band. He’s not afraid of instrumentals, either: “Oyster Point” a bit of experimental noodling, while “Unsweet Meat” is almost psychedelic jazz.
And then there are the earnest moments — every Man Man album has them. “Inner Iggy” brings the Dick Dale guitars back in for a beachy track about finding your inner shirtless septuagenarian. And there’s the stand-out “The Prettiest Song in the World”; despite singing about a clergyman 69ing and “shopping until I drop” (followed by a frenetic, very Man Man instrumental breakout), Honus cuts to the quick at the end: “I wanted to write you the prettiest song in the world/but I got distracted by wildfires over Burbank/I wanted to write you the prettiest song in the world/But I got distracted so I didn’t.”
What’s considered pretty in a world that’s forever-masked? Beasts, blood, brains and beats. Dream Hunting may not be traditionally lovely, but it lives and breathes. And that’s really all we can do these days.