Man Man has always been a brave band, but the creation of their fifth album required a whole new kind of bravery. In 2008, they released Rabbit Habits; we didn’t know it at the time, but that album was the death knell for the experimental-bordering-on-just-plain-mental incarnation of the band. Life Fantastic followed in 2011, and with the band adopting a more somber sound – “Steak Knives” took frontman Ryan Kattner (AKA Honus Honus) over a year to write due to its subject matter – it was expected that fans and critics alike would embrace the fact that the band had gotten serious.
Critics did, but commercially speaking, it was a disappointment that shattered Kattner’s confidence. He wanted to quit, and somehow writing On Oni Pond proved to be even more difficult than its predecessor, but along with drummer Pow Pow (Christopher Powell), he managed to get the job done – and how. If you were one of those people who thought their hooks always got lost in restless arrangements, give this a try – if you’re not hooked after the exuberant “Pink Wonton” has left its mark, then this is not for you.
One thing that’s remained consistent throughout their ever-evolving career is Kattner’s brilliant turn of phrase. The album opener mentions being waterboarded “with ‘Call Me Maybe’ playing on an endless repeat”, while the heartbreaking lead single “Head On” could be seen as a response to Life Fantastic backfiring (“I need new skin for this old skeleton of mine, ’cause this one that I’m in has let me down once again”). Melodies are placed front and center, with “End Boss” drawing the listener in with an instantly memorable keyboard refrain, before things get busy and we hear some tropical percussion and marimba thrown into the mix, as well as plenty of poignant lyrics, the insistent chorus chief among them: “If you won’t reinvent yourself, you can’t circumvent yourself”.
Circumventing themselves is something that it’s taken Man Man five years to accomplish, but every one of these 13 songs, from the 40-second brass-and-woodwind curtain raiser “Oni Swan”, to the bubbly 60s pop of “Sparks”, to the jubilant piano pop of closer “Born Tight”, contains some form of flourish that shows that the band are absolutely loving their reinvented selves. On Oni Pond, for all its questioning lyrics and widescreen pessimism, is a joyous return from a band who have decided not only to write pop songs, but to pen the best album of their distinguished career so far.