words fae Charlie Leach (@YungBuchan)
Mark Kozelek’s contemporary sound is one that is singular and (arguably) esoteric. Kozelek’s recent output is one mainly concerned with quiet contemplation, a style that can easily be described as diaristic. In many ways, this is a style that is perfectly suited to folk music. A tradition that has spanned centuries, folk music has an earthy quality, something that could be argued to be closer to detailing the universal experiences of being human. This is a music that originated through human tongue.
When Kozelek is truly at his best, he achieves this universality in his songwriting. The 2014 album “Benji”, released under the moniker of Sun Kil Moon (originally formed as a band, but now taken as another avenue for Kozelek’s solo music), was universally loved by critics and music fans alike. This was an album that ditched poetic metaphor and imagery for harsh truth and direct thinking. This was an album concerned with death and melancholia, but was still life-affirming and at times heart-warming. Kozelek, through his frank musings and delicately stripped back folk instrumentation, formed an eleven track album that spoke of the human condition, and thus a universality that all humans have to deal with. “Benji” was a truly special album.
Though discussing “Benji” might seem like an unnecessary tangent to nourish the word count – this writer can also make self-deprecating jibes like Kozelek – the seminal album is important for discussing the songwriter. Kozelek, it is fair to say, has been busy since that 2014 release. Under Sun Kil Moon, Kozelek has released two albums (with a third supposedly arriving this year) and two collaborative efforts with Jesu, while under his own name has released five albums and two EPs. Although this writer has not ventured into the depths of his extensive library, a cursory look at critique and opinions online seems to suggest that these albums delivered more of the same of Kozelek.
The previous statement is clearly generalised, but to an outsider looking into the world of Kozelek, it arguably wouldn’t be incorrect to suggest that, though experimentation has occurred, it is experimentation on a well-trodden theme. This latest self-titled release sees Kozelek remove the hip-hop influenced production of previous Sun Kil Moon album “Common As Light And Love Are Red Valleys Of Blood” and resurrect the skeletal production that evokes the essence of “Benji”. With looping equipment in toe, Kozelek creates sonically pleasing acoustic guitar riffs, eclectic vocal harmonies and occasional sputters of percussion. Opener “This Is My Town” has an almost math-rock like quality, the guitar harmonics looped perfectly, providing a haunting yet serene backdrop to Kozelek’s ode to his adopted town San Fransisco, where he recounts anecdotes of his meetings with many of the local people, with the opening verse about a group of old ladies in San Fransisco’s Chinatown being a particular highlight.
On “Live in Chicago”, Kozelek imitates a drum machine, creates enchanting vocal harmonies and gymnastics behind his anecdotes and plays a melancholic guitar refrain. As with “Benji”, this track sees Kozelek explore mortality, through a back and forth of his past and now, interspersed with memories of touring when the Las Vegas and Orlando Nightclub mass shootings occurred. This is where Kozelek is at his best, combining the seemingly mundane with universal fears, both grounding and elevating his lyricism to heights not many can reach. For the relative newcomers and window shoppers to Kozelek, this is songwriting at its finest.
It’s a pity then, that these fantastic moments of genius are interspersed through a dense forest of murky greys and beige. Kozelek, it seems, through his truly unique songwriting, can be both universal and also extremely esoteric. His quirks and diatribes become tiresome, and at times pretentious. These songs feel drawn-out, stretched to their breaking point. On “My Love For You Is Undying”, an anecdote used to show his appreciation for human emotion, how as humans we live for our ability to care, is languid and pointlessly meandering. A remark at a staff member at a book-store over the American food-chain Panera Bread is painstakingly slow, and does not seem to add any overall meaning or real context to the anecdote. In this case, it just seems like Kozelek has to relate every idea to an anecdote, where in fact, an idea can just be that; directness is Kozelek’s calling card in most situations, but sometimes there is a longing for him to use some poetic license and call back to his previous work pre “Benji”.
As well as lyrics like the aforementioned song, the production is also stretched beyond relief. Themes and riffs that are by themselves melancholic, haunting and sometimes beautiful, are drawn out over near ten-minute songs, with no real evolution or variation on that theme. It seems here that Kozelek’s penchant for a skeletal structure has also extended to the song structures on this album. Though containing somewhat of a chorus, “Weed Whacker” maintains the same guitar refrain for eight minutes, with little to no variation or evolution. The album opener “This Is My Town”, though having a quite frankly beautiful refrain, is, like “Weed Whacker”, an over seven minute song with little to no variation on that same theme, and these examples do not even cover the odd occasions where Kozelek chooses certain sounds that are puzzling with their inclusion.
While on one song Kozelek barks and meows like his pets (he clearly has taken the diaristic tone to its most extreme) on another song, “Live In Chicago”, the backing harmonies that seemingly are repeating phonetics eventually loop round in the song to form the word diarrhoea. No pun needed for that one.
In some instances, this self-titled album reaches the dizzy heights of “Benji”. In others, this is a vastly disappointing exercise in the pretentious and frankly quite boring idiosyncrasies of Mark Kozelek. “Benji” may have seemed like an album that dabbled in universal truths and universal problems, but this self-titled effort, for the most part, seems to be an esoteric exercise in music creation. Kozelek has saturated folk music with album after album for a few years now. For fans of his work, this latest effort will be another fine addition to the Mark Kozelek Museum. For fleeting chancers, this could easily be an impossible listen in one sitting. Ironically enough, for someone that is concerned with real human emotion, it might be worth it at this point to release a Kozelek compilation album of all his best singles (said with just a tad hint of sarcasm).