It’s not often I hear an album that inspires me to write a review – in fact, it’s not something that has happened since I started working at TND back in 2013. Sure, shouting out and showing some love for my favorite albums of the year is fun, but picking apart and critiquing pieces of music is generally yucky business to me. But I’ve been listening to this new Mark Kozelek album for a couple of weeks now and have a lot of thoughts that I’d like to get down on paper. I’ll try to arrange them coherently, but no promises.
Starting with the narrative of the album, it’s what I see as a bottle episode in the Kozelek saga. To quite an extent, Mark’s 2017 output was born out of the tumultuous political climate of the preceding year, not to mention the rash of celebrity deaths. Common as Light in particular had no shortage of drama despite it being the most radical expression of Mark’s diaristic songwriting process up to that point. There were even chapters that found Mark indulging in his fascination with true crime, going as far as investigating a mysterious death at a potentially haunted hotel. Whereas in this new self-titled album, the greatest external conflict Mark faces is either when he knocks over a glass in a restaurant, or when a bookstore cashier teases him about Panera Bread, both of which occur in the track “My Love for You Is Undying.” Yeah, it makes even Universal Themes sound Shakespearean. Mark Kozelek is truly the purest slice-of-life experience the man (and by extension, any other musician) has crafted yet.
That being said, the album contains a pretty much unprecedented amount of self-reflection, intertextuality, and meta-commentary/humor from the Koz. Sure, he has written songs about writing songs before – “Track Number 8” from Among the Leaves springs to mind, as does his joke about not spending much time writing lyrics in Common as Light’s “Seventies TV Show Theme Song.” But this level of self-awareness is even more pronounced and pervasive on Mark Kozelek. A few examples are when he acknowledges the polarized reactions to his stream-of-consciousness lyricism in “Undying,” when he runs out of words mid-verse during the ostensibly freestyled “Sublime,” and when he wonders if he's singing or talking during "Weed Whacker." There are also spots where Mark considers his artistic legacy, most notably on “The Mark Kozelek Museum,” whose poignant coda is a highlight. And in many ways “I Cried During Wall Street” is a song about closing an album. Early in the track, Mark sings about how much he dislikes goodbyes, so it’s a nice touch that the album's final lines instead amount to a “see ya soon." Sure, the song title almost reads as self-parody, but anyone who's not dead inside can relate to tearing up at a movie, maybe even one that makes you think, "THIS of all things is getting to me?!" Oh, and as you might’ve guessed, there are a lot of pop cultural references here. Most of the allusions are to boxing and '70s-'80s Hollywood cinema, though you’ll also be catching titles of books and TV shows, as well as names of fellow musicians like Cardi B and Ariel Pink. Not that this sort of intertextuality is new territory for Mark.
Now we can get into the album’s formal qualities, which are arguably even more interesting. In the context of Mark’s career, this album shares the most in common with 2010's Admiral Fell Promises in that they were both recorded almost entirely by Mark alone and that they’re mostly comprised of solo guitar and voice. As it happens, the only reason why AFP wasn’t released under his given name was because Mark had more confidence in the Sun Kil Moon moniker to shift units. That appears to have changed in the past eight years, but judging from his annual holiday letter, he was toying with the notion of releasing this new album as Sun Kil Moon, too. The fact that Mark ultimately decided not only to release it under his own name, but also give it an eponymous title, hints at themes of identity and self-exploration that I might’ve already touched on, but can't completely put into words.
There, Anthony, that’s how a real man digresses. Anyway, Mark Kozelek is a very different animal from Admiral Fell Promises. One may be forgiven for expecting this album to be a ramblier electric version of the latter after hearing the two lead singles, but about half of the album is primarily acoustic and the track "Weed Whacker" is bass-led. There’s also “Sublime,” which features drums from Steve Shelley and sounds like a cross between the titular band's brand of ska and the slowcore of Red House Painters. Of course, AFP had no percussion or instrumental collaborators, and beyond that, it was an album that married classical guitar music and folk songwriting in a rather novel way. As such, it required greater virtuosity on the nylon-string guitar than your average singer-songwriter project. I find the approach to composition on Mark Kozelek to be novel as well, but for essentially the opposite reason. With the exception of “The Mark Kozelek Museum” and the closing track, which do feature some intricate fingerpicking, the songs’ musical backdrops are formed by guitar loops, some of which sound rudimentary compared to Mark’s flashier playing on past releases. Think: Common as Light without the percussive and bassy backbone. That isn’t a bad thing in my opinion, as the resulting product has a mesmerizing effect similar to a good piece of ambient music.
So, I’d say in contrast to the virtuosity displayed on Admiral Fell Promises, the appeal of Mark Kozelek’s instrumentation comes down to its resonance and tonality. Really, I fucking envy the guitar tones Mark achieves throughout this album, particularly on the back-to-back tracks “Good Nostalgia” and “666 Post.” The former is so cavernous and gothic that the lead guitar sounds more medieval than modern, and it sounds as if it was recorded in the echo chamber of the Koz's psyche. Then there’s the latter, which is composed of harmonic sequences that evoke a cursed music box – fitting considering the song’s surreal narrative. It's also brilliant how the strumming in "The Banjo Song" emulates a clock pendulum's tick-tock. Certainly some of the album’s tonal appeal comes from Mark’s proficiency and inventiveness as a guitarist and producer, but much of it probably has to do with the non-studio recording environments he opted for this time. The vast majority of the album was captured with mobile recording gear in hotel rooms, which obviously have different acoustic properties and are less controlled than the professional studios and equipment Mark typically uses. Consequently, the mix is richer in reverb and overtones than any one of his albums since Down Colorful Hill.
I can imagine this recording set-up being a blessing or a curse depending on one’s sensibilities. The album naturally isn't Mark's most polished effort – some of the soloing on “The Mark Kozelek Museum” peaks and occasionally a bit of incidental noise will find its way into a loop. However, if you prefer your music rough-and-ready (as I do), then those will be non-issues. You may also notice that the Koz's vocal performances are a bit more understated and restrained than usual, and I suspect that's because he wanted to stick to his "inside voice" out of courtesy to the hotels' other clients. In that respect, the recently released Live in Chicago makes for a perfect companion piece, finding Mark's crooning at its most forceful and dramatic. Kudos for that orchestral rendition of "The Black Butterfly" (seriously, Mark, please record more shit with Magik*Magik) ...I'm getting off track again. Not that off track though, as the song "Live in Chicago" actually details the events leading up to that concert.
My only gripe with Mark Kozelek is that my enjoyment drops off a little as the story winds down in New Orleans and the music is taken in a rootsier direction. I can at least acknowledge that it's an appropriate change in sonic palette and respect the versatility. That petty complaint aside, this is one of Mark's most revealing, life-affirming, and envelope-pushing releases to date. It's not without its blemishes, but an honest self-portrait shouldn't be. We've at last reached peak Koz with this album, though I wouldn't necessarily recommend it as an entry point to his art. That'd be like recommending someone to start watching Breaking Bad at the episode with the fly. But those caught up on the lore will hopefully find much to appreciate in this new chapter of the life and times of Mark Kozelek.
Mark Kozelek is out May 11 via Caldo Verde Records. It begins streaming next week on Sun Kil Moon's website.