Much has been said about Mark Kozelek, good and bad. From his slow-core days as front man of the Red House Painters in the 90s, to his rebranding as a folk-rock singer song-writer with Sun Kil Moon in the early 00s, to his resurgence of popularity with the release of his 2014 masterpiece Benji, there has been much artistic evolution and a fair amount of personal controversy. Kozelek is one of the few artists whose evolution has been almost totally transparent through his art, while still being almost entirely reclusive from the media and interconnected cyber-world. The lyrical content of his work has always been intensely personal, whether in the sparse poetry of his early work or his new, diary entry, sing-songy-spoken-word that he has adopted over the past five years. During this time his musical output has nearly doubled, often releasing two or more projects every year, whether as Sun Kil Moon or solo collaborations with other artists.
His latest release is Mark Kozelek with Ben Boye and Jim White 2. As the title implies, Kozelek has collaborated with these musicians before; this is the sequel to their first collaborative album from 2017. On the surface, this record is no different from any of his releases since 2015. The songs are long; all of the seven tracks are over eight minutes, with the full track list running to an hour and eighteen. There are no choruses or hooks, and little in the way of conventional song structure at all.
Instead, Kozelek and co. present an immersive, hypnotic world of lush piano parts, uneasy drum patterns, and harmonic guitars, all featuring Kozelek’s voice floating masterfully overtop. It is feels appropriate to describe this album as a short-story collection in musical form. Although he delves into spoken-word passages occasionally, the vocals are always subtly melodic, flowing easily along with the music. The amount of detail and care that was put into the arrangements makes it clear that these are not simply backing-tracks made to be played in the underneath someone talking; these are songs that double as stories. Kozelek has gone so far as to publish the complete lyrics to every song he has released from 1992-2019 in two volumes via his label Caldo Verde, demonstrating the importance of the lyrics to his art as being significant enough to form a body of work on their own. It is clear that the music and lyrics are of equal importance here and in his whole discography, intermingling to form a mesmerizing world of sound and unfiltered thought.
What makes this album stand out from others in Kozelek’s discography is the musical world it presents. Unlike the muddy This Is My Dinner or relatively sparse I Also Want To Die In New Orleans, the level of detail makes it possible to pay attention and be intrigued the whole way through. Each song features multiple movements that are tied together by musical and lyrical motifs that appear throughout, keeping them from feeling like directionless experiments and free-association exercises. Koz often breaks the fourth wall by talking about his own song-writing process, with lines like, “I find poetry in everything,” which typed out here out of context sounds incredibly pretentious, but comes across as sincere and true within the album.
There are moments of hilarious instrumental and lyrical quirks as well. On the middle track, “Chard Enchilada,” Kozelek spends each verse talking about underdogs who have to work harder to get ahead in life than others. One such person is the bassoonist, who’s supremely un-cool instrument makes it difficult to find success in the music industry (spoiler: there is a bassoon solo right after the verse). During the last track, he abruptly stops his musings to ask someone in the studio if he thinks the album is over eighty minutes yet, to which he replies, “um, I’ll have to check . . .” It’s a comical moment of self-awareness.
Mark Kozelek with Ben Boye and Jim White 2 allows listeners access to someone else’s unfiltered consciousness while also allowing them to make of it what they want. For me, there is usually one take-away that I get from these records, one phrase or verse that sticks with me when it’s all over. This record’s moment comes at the end of the closing track as Kozelek narrates the experience of answering the studio door to find some evangelists from The Church Of Latter-day Saints. He tells them, “Hey, this ain’t my cup of tea, but you showed up at my door to talk to me. I know all about the angel Morona and Joseph Smith and the Golden Plates. But you came here to talk with me, and I respect that. You’re brave. You showed up.”
Our Rating: 7.9 (Stand-Out)
Mark Kozelek with Ben Boye and Jim White 2 is out now via Caldo Verde Records.