Words: Devin Kelly
Mark Kozelek has been telling stories musically for almost twenty-five years, with a ragged, throaty voice that reeks of cigarette smoke and is laced with regret, among many other things. One look at his discography—from his early project Red House Painters, to his more successful project Sun Kil Moon, to his recent solo career—shows an intense study of the folk storytelling genre. He has covered everyone from John Denver to Leonard Cohen to Will Oldham, and his original material likens him to great rural and Midwestern-minded acts, such as Tom Waits, Dr. Dog, and The National. More than anything, or perhaps anyone, though, Kozelek has stayed true to his brand of mundane, brutal, and melancholic songwriting, where no detail is less important than another. And he has been performing this way from the grunge-dominated 90s, when Nirvana and Elliot Smith brought emo into the mainstream, into the folk revivals of today, where true storytelling is often replaced by generic, foot-stomping folk-pop.
For Kozelek, songwriting is as honest an art as storytelling. The two, for him, are interchangeable. I would love to see what’s on his bookshelf. I would bet there’s a wide range of authors, from Sherwood Anderson to John Updike to John Cheever, who found beauty and sadness in the everyday, and aimed to tell it true.
But, like every successful and prolific musician who has spanned the test of decades, Kozelek has also experimented—not with his storytelling and songwriting, but with the backdrop for his voice. Like Dylan, who infamously relinquished his acoustic guitar for an electric, or Springsteen, who went from rock n’ roll to spare folk (see Nebraska, one of Springsteen’s best, or even The Ghost of Tom Joad) to warm synth pop (see Tunnel of Love – not one of his best…sorry), Kozelek has used his recent solo career to delve into different atmospheres for his storytelling. The year 2013 has been prolific for him in this sense, from his cover album Like Rats to his collaboration with electronic instrumentalist Jimmy LaValle, Perils from the Sea, to his most recent collaboration with Desertshore, Mark Kozelek & Desertshore.
These efforts show a number of things: first, that storytelling, as a musical art form, is not dead; and further, that the notion of a true singer-songwriter is adaptable, that the mold is not fixed, and that the acoustic guitar is not always the best instrument to accompany a good story.
Kozelek and LaValle’s Perils from the Sea is brilliantly constructed, pairing LaValle’s slow-burning and ambience-ridden electronic music with Kozelek’s bristled voice. It’s as if you’re at a campfire, a campfire surrounded by speakers projecting swirling ambience while Kozelek tells story after gnarled story. But Kozelek, like any good storyteller, doesn’t divulge everything to the listener. That old adage: show, don’t tell. Kozelek is always showing—always giving out little by little, highlighting the ordinary and the mundane until you either give up listening (please don’t) or find something special. The best part about this subtle, harnessed, and mature method of storytelling is that when something finally hits home for the listener, it hits hard and sticks.
There are many cathartic moments in Perils that require patience, as in “By the Time That I Awoke,” when Kozelek haggardly murmurs, “I can’t remember and you can’t make me remember / why in a crowd I am so lonely” while LaValle’s arpeggiating synths let off their grainy buzz. They’re present in one of the album’s best, “Gustavo,” with the strangely mundane line “Chopping wood, falling asleep to the TV snow / making ground beef tacos on the top of a potbelly stove,” a line that means so much because of Kozelek’s building narrative. Cathartic moments litter the brutally gorgeous album closer, “Somehow the Wonder of Life Prevails,” which progresses with the wit and sadness and insight of a Raymond Carver story, while underscored with a rising delicate softness by LaValle. You can hear it and taste it and see it projected. It fucking rips through the skin with its honesty. This is real folk, what Kozelek is up to with Perils, because it takes the meat of American sadness and grips it and addresses it, and even though it’s underscored with bouncing synths, textured pads, and static drum production, it tells a story just as good if not better than anything or anyone that’s been making music for decades.
Kozelek’s later collaboration with Desertshore harkens him back to his Red House Painter days, with that same threadbare storytelling underscored by a more rhythmic and organic instrumentation—guys with actual guitars and actual drums. If anything, the recent collaboration serves as a reminder to listeners why Kozelek matters so much, and why more than a few people worship him with a fanaticism that can only come when someone describes your life for you so sadly and so perfectly.
Early single, “Mariette,” is easy on the ears, which makes it all the more powerful when Kozelek sings, “And then Mariette asks why haven’t you asked me to marry you yet / and a ’78 Cadillac rolled by and I seemed to forget.” Such a line expresses so much in so little. The almost pathetic forgetfulness of man. But the strange unimportance of it all, too. It’s loaded. Another song, “Brothers,” tells the story, according to Kozelek, of his dad and his dad’s deceased brothers. It’s a painful song, slow-moving and elegiac. But something must be said about a man who can write a song so gripping and full of tribute, and then write a short piece in the New York Times about it, where he says: “I visit my dad every year and we sit in his living room and talk for hours, as if none of those scraps ever happened. He’s funny as hell. He’s paranoid about break-ins and tornadoes, argues with his girlfriend all day about where to set the thermostat and loves Panera Bread.” This, in a nutshell, is why Kozelek is so good at what he does. He can balance the sadness out with wit and dark humor. And I think that’s why some of America’s best popular storytellers are steeped in this strange balance of sadness and humor—take the Coen Brothers, for instance, or the author George Saunders, who glosses his stark displays of America with sardonic, strangely comedic wit.
In the end, storytelling, musical or otherwise, is only good if it is honest, in the sense that it is trying to stay true to something. Kozelek is constantly true to the environment, the people around him, his characters, and, most importantly, himself. In the most recent collaborations “Tavoris Cloud,” where he sings, “I’m grateful for your love / but at the age of forty-six I’m still one fucked-up little kid who cannot figure anything out.”
This kind of no-holds-barred storytelling comes naturally to Kozelek, but the hope is that, over time, it breaks into the mainstream. There is a tradition in folk that stems from Woody and Arlo Guthrie, from Dylan and The Band, from Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash and Muddy Waters. It is a tradition that strives to tell things as they are with no hope for reward or recognition. It is a tradition that aims to tell things true. And Kozelek has been doing that now for twenty-five years. Others have been doing that too, of which prime examples are John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats) and Owen Ashworth (Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, Advance Base). These are great story-tellers, but there need to and there can always be more. And it doesn’t matter what you’re telling that story with. An acoustic guitar doesn’t make a story any more honest, any truer. A computer doesn’t either. It’s the story that counts. The music will come.
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