Mark Kozelek - Like Rats / Live at Phoenix Public House / Perils from the Sea | Album Review | By Volume

The kid that went down isn't dead; he just can't find his phone. The Hold Steady - Almost Everything

Mark Kozelek

Like Rats / Perils from the Sea (with Jimmy Lavalle)

Does Mark Kozelek give a fuck? Not if you want to hear “Mistress”, basically.

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Author: on May 24, 2013

February 19, 2013 / April 30, 2013

It’s harder to like Mark Kozelek than it is to love him. Call it mood swings: he’s the kind of musician who’ll cover “I Got You Babe”, pop music’s rallying call from one lover’s arms to another’s, and sequence it after his own spat out, sinister version of “I Killed Mommy”. Kozelek’s song lexicon is broad in a way he gleefully overlooks, at times beautiful and tranquil, recalling a story out our line of sight, but often a meditation on vapidity, brought about by chaos rather than the wisdom he might use to arrange one of his own compositions. The songs on Like Rats, his first covers album to take from the pool of as many musicians as he wants, reflect that clusterfuck. They are uniformly Kozelek at base, all of them nylon-string guitar performances that sound as good as one-take, acting, in a way, as a continuation of Among the Leaves, but browning further. But listen through it and his choices are like crossover stand-up: overwrought prog-rock from Yes and Genesis, sweet Sonny & Cher classics, the Descendents. It’s a list of surprises, not just because those are the rules of music (“Carpet Crawlers” and “Silly Girl”? A blasphemy), but also because Kozelek is using folk rock like roleplay.

After a couple of decades, that’s what Kozelek has revealed himself as. Perhaps my favourite distillation of his latter-day career comes from old writing colleague Cam Wilson, who describes the character-acting leading up to Among the Leaves: “the expert storyteller of Ghosts of the Great Highway, the depressive romantic of April, the ruminative sage of Admiral Fell Promises”.  It’s a colourful picture of Sun Kil Moon, a project Kozelek has deceptively used as a means for escapism for as many years as it’s existed. Hearing Ghosts now, I see lines that announce a departure from reality: “I like old movies with Clark Gable, just like my dad did”, he sings on “Glenn Tipton”. The song soon transforms into fantasy, a distraction that gives its opening scene the slip. Kozelek eluded that world for stories, like dreamt-up murders or boxers in their fifth round. When Kozelek was ready to shed this skin for that one, to haul up with ex-lovers on April, he did. When he wanted nothing more than to show the potency of his guitar-playing, to be his own type of wizard, he made Admiral Fell Promises. Unlike Red House Painters, Sun Kil Moon hosted a Kozelek who was broadly speaking, always casting a wide shadow on the most pertinent emotions.

Wilson goes on to describe Among the Leaves on its own terms: “bitterness and resignation”. This persona isn’t one to be liked, but tolerated to love what’s attributed to it. Among the Leaves problematically extends that persona to its listener, detailing shitty tours and naïve fans, making us believe he’d rather be anywhere but the hotel room he ended up writing these songs in. “UK Blues” might be Kozelek’s most terrifying song. This many years through his travelled career, he understandably blames his weariness on others, and he uses one of many sarcastic couplets on this song to search for his past: “Where’s Katy Song, Mistress, and Grace Cathedral Park?” Kozelek is impersonating this crowd or that one – in a disturbingly cognitive way, it doesn’t count as a particular event is that happened, but rather toward whichever crowd is watching him perform it. For its blasé, starting-something confessions (everyone sucks, I’m homesick – but I don’t really give a shit), Among the Leaves felt distinctly cut off from the Sun Kil Moon realm. It’s a good album, even a great one.  Though its touring lessons are predictable, its rudeness is interesting, renegade Kozelek serving up notes to his own rockumentary. But it’s Kozelek treading on ground that exists, rather than on fantasy worlds I’d like to see him make real.

When Kozelek retreats into AC/DC, or into Modest Mouse – when he remembers that he likes Genesis, a metaphysical conundrum from which my brain will never recover – he chooses another reality. Like Ghosts or April he makes a nomad of himself, and then refuses to assimilate himself where he ends up. Each of his records since Ghosts has been this refusing. Kozelek has doubled down, become more and more sparsely folk with each confident stride towards a signature style. But Like Rats feels as “fuck it” as Wilson thought Among the Leaves was, a continuation of being able to do and say whatever one wants when they can no longer conjure the stories I’d like them to tell. You can hear Kozelek strain on the live album accompanying this one when he’s asked to play “Mistress”, a song infamous to no one but him: “Ugh”, he says. “I will play it. But later”. The irony might be that with four albums in the past two years, Kozelek’s work ethic is as strong as it’s ever been. On Phoenix Public House he plays “Track Number 8”, a song so languishing it gets titled for its hard slog, and sings “Songwriting’s lonely, songwriting hurts”. He might have given up writing those songs, but he’s fucking around with these ones.

The collaboration with Jimmy Lavalle is something else, but only in theory. It’s easy to hate at first because it is tactilely foreign, a completely different theatre for Kozelek to detail his dramas. Hearing Kozelek sing over electronic music is the novelty of Perils from the Sea, but it contains the same carefree philosophies of this late-career Kozelek, one who wills its twilight on his own terms. He sings of gigs as an aftermath, the best part being when he walks around after. On “By The Time I Awoke”, he qualifies it with good parts, casually calling out “Shoko and Koko”, new friends. And while at first Perils from the Sea has all the hallmarks of e-mail music – it’s vague, minimalist, and explicitly half-for-half – Kozelek seems to dominate proceedings with his parcelled off poetry. It might come across that Kozelek’s voice will make Lavalle’s music whole, and vice versa; really, Kozelek ends up sounding thrown in, mumbling typical stray thoughts over the top of weak synths that give him precedence. What’s weird is hearing the electronic music at all. It’s a gimmick attached to a man who is starting to think of music as nothing but one. As a friend rightly points out, “Baby in Death Can I Rest Next To Your Grave” has the tinny but explosive tension of Beach House. And yet it’s suppressed – Lavalle is working with a lone operative, one whose worlds don’t often get populated.

After all these years, Kozelek’s best qualities are still visible. My favourites are the ones that slip out of him and become the strengths of his songs, lacking any of his self-purporting. I’m talking beyond his playful stage back-chatting on Phoenix Public House, in which he can’t help but be gently vicious, a friend to his crowd only from his particular mantle. There’s more. It’s things like the crackle of his voice, hearing him extend his croon beyond its usual timbre, and watching his words trail off in need of air. Kozelek’s voice has always been strongly rooted, deep and obtaining, but he lets it fade with the transience of his thoughts. On Perils from the Sea, Lavalle’s simple laptop electronics respect the things Kozelek is unaware of, the songs stretching and letting his voice feel in and out of their structures. But Kozelek doesn’t notice; he doesn’t really see the landscape at all. Perils from the Sea isn’t indifferent from James Blake’s collaboration with RZA, which may be as strong an earworm as it is because it lets RZA dominate on an album that altogether isn’t his. It’s likely that Lavalle put more into this album, just as Blake did into “Take a Fall For Me”, but its moments belong to Kozelek, his lyrics acting decidedly on the songs. On “You Missed My Heart” he fluctuates between hitting notes high and low, and then scrambles his thoughts in his manner of choosing. “You missed my heart” he begins, and then pauses, selectively withholding information before throwing it away (“were his last words… before he died”). It might sound like Kozelek doesn’t care much, as he is wont to do for fear his efforts will crumble in the shadow of “Mistress”, but he gets to play executive on this album.

Hearing this much new music from Kozelek is a gesture. It’s proof that he’s drawn to making art even if he’d rather be doing anything else, or nothing at all. (I like to think this is why he took a shine to Bruno Mars’ “Young Girls”, which expresses a lyric in line with Kozelek’s meta commentaries: “I’m addicted and I don’t know why / I guess I’ve always been this way”). It’s a naming ritual, too: this feels to me like a death knell for Sun Kil Moon, a way to say goodbye to certain fantasies and find peace in being Mark Kozelek. I don’t expect an album to follow Among the Leaves because it was a story that sacrificed other stories, denying anything that wasn’t happening in Kozelek’s hotel room. That’s where this self-referential songwriter exists now: on tour, walking down the road, sometimes telling new stories for new projects. Mark Kozelek gives a fuck. Just not like he used to.

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