It may be that your only knowledge of Mark Kozelek is that he got into a spat with the lead singer of War on Drugs a few years ago, that he called an audience a bunch of fucking hillbillies, that (elementarily) he’s a grumpy fuck. It’s not an entirely bad place to start from. Other things you should know: he’s as prolific as Bob Pollard, he started out in a band called Red House Painters and then he switched horses and became Sun Kil Moon. In recent years, in addition to albums put out under the Sun Kil Moon moniker and as solo projects under his own name he’s also collaborated quite a lot: he’s put out albums with Jesu, Jimmy Lavelle, Ben Boye and Jim White, and now Petra Haden.
I’ve liked Kozelek and followed his work (most of his work, it’s pretty difficult to keep up with the plethora of releases including a vast raft of live albums too) for a long time, since Red House Painters days. Album to album, there are highs and lows – if I think back to Red House Painters days, I remember an album with a song called “Grace Cathedral Park” on that I loved and an album with a cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “I am a Rock” on that I didn’t get along with so much. The Sun Kil Moon album (of Modest Mouse songs) called Tiny Cities is one of my all-time favourite records. But. But. In recent years, I have to say, Kozelek has started to get right on my tits.
It started round about Benji, an album that everyone loved but which left me cold. He changed his voice for starters, seemed to inhabit a deeper register. What’s more, the songs themselves seemed to grow in length (he’s always been fond of the 12 minute song but in recent years his songs have all crept in that direction). And jesus, the introspection. Just as Fall albums became epistles from MES, so Kozelek output dwells in a lewdly solipsistic way on the very fluff of his navel. Where once there was pretty melancholy, there was now irascible ranting. You’d get more from a tramp off his head on spice rattling around amidst the dustbins than you would from Kozelek.
So I came to Joey Always Smiled not expecting much. And the first song runs to 12 minutes. Here we go, I thought. The voice is what the voice has become. I’m not a fan of it. And anyone who has a go at Matt Berninger for his ‘spoken word’ style – fuck me, listen to this. It’s a one-sided conversation with Kozelek as he talks to you about hard ons and childhood and the first gig he ever saw (The Doobie Brothers). But the interminable irritation is offset (somewhat) by Petra Haden’s backing vocals and a haunting repeated piano refrain. We’ll call the opener a draw. The title track follows (and my heart soars at the sight of a running time of only six minutes): again, it’s a flat spoken word delivery but multi-tracked with a second vocal line that sometimes leans in the direction of singing. Again, Petra Haden’s backing vocals lift the song from the usual Kozelek mush of endless recollection.
‘Rest in Peace R Lee Ermey’ is even shorter (yes!) and involves actual guitar playing of the sort that Kozelek once excelled at. It’s – whisper it – almost pretty. Kozelek tells a story about watching Full Metal Jacket. It’s – whisper it! – not the most irritating way to spend almost six minutes. Given recent output, this is a considerable achievement. And so it goes. Kozelek has only one note these days (see: tramp in dustbins) but Petra Haden leavens the irritation a lot. ‘Nice People All Round’ could be almost Liz Phair-like if Kozelek wasn’t boring on like fucking Einar from The Sugarcubes.
It’s not entirely terrible is what we’re saying. Yes, there are songs with titles like ‘1983 Era MTV Music is the Soundtrack to Outcasts Being Bullied By Jocks’ that last for 19 fucking minutes (and I’ve listened to it so you do not have to: imagine a keyboard noodling amiably while someone snaps their fingers and a staggering bore rambles on about going to the dentist – I shit you not). And there’s a cover of Huey Lewis and the News’ ‘The Power of Love’ which I could happily spend the rest of my life without hearing again. But it isn’t quite as terrible as the awful stuff he’s put out over the course of the last two years. And that really is as nice as we can be about it.
Words by Pete Wild