A Probably Futile Attempt To Figure Out What Happened To Mark Kozelek

Mark Kozelek has a new album out today. It’s called Joey Always Smiled, and it’s a collaborative effort with the violinist and singer Petra Haden. It shouldn’t be confused with another album, Mark Kozelek With Ben Boye And Jim White 2, already set for release in March of 2020, and recently promoted with the 15-minute single “Where’s Gilroy?” about mass shootings in California, Texas, and Ohio.

Is it good? I don’t know. I haven’t heard it yet. I don’t know that I ever will. I sort of, in fact, dread hearing it, even though I own and enjoy (even passionately love) several of Kozelek’s albums.

If you have at some point been a Kozelek fan, you can probably relate. But let’s say you’ve never heard of Kozelek. Surely there is some artist whom you used to love, and then at some point… you just stopped. Not because you grew sick of the albums that you’ve always liked; you might still like them as much as you ever did. You just stopped responding to their latest work. Or you came to dislike the artist as a person. Or, frankly, you just got tired of trying to keep up.

All three of those factors, to varying degrees, have caused me to drift away from Kozelek in recent years. Eventually, I felt compelled to file a Discography Divorce.

A Discography Divorce is when, either via a conscious decision or accidental forgetfulness brought on by creeping indifference, you opt to no longer follow an artist’s career. Sometimes, a DD can occur suddenly over a dramatic transgression — Kanye West going MAGA being an obvious recent example. (Some might conflate this with canceling, though the difference with a divorce is that you aren’t necessarily severing yourself from the older work you still like.)

But more often, DDs just sort of happen, without you even fully realizing it. For me, this occurred recently with The New Pornographers, a very good indie band who I cared about a lot in the ’00s, and who I’m sure still makes really good albums, even though I haven’t had the energy to play more than a song and a half off the recent In The Morse Code Of Brake Lights.

My Discography Divorce history with Kozelek is especially eventful because I’ve actually divorced him twice. For the uninitiated: Kozelek is a taciturn singer-songwriter who first rose to prominence in the early ’90s with his band Red House Painters, which specialized in glacially paced and crushingly sad folk-rock that was commonly classified as slowcore. But I didn’t become a fan until he disbanded Red House Painters and started a new project, Sun Kil Moon, which debuted with a stunning masterpiece, Ghosts Of The Great Highway, in 2003. Five years later, he put out his second LP of original songs, April, which I also adored.

I still love those records. But after that, he put out a couple of albums and EPs that I didn’t care for. Over time, I fell into the DD zone. Then, in 2014, Kozelek scored a major comeback with Benji, an autobiographical song cycle that ruminated on death and the fragility of family bonds with unsparing honesty and intimacy. Not only was it a great album, but Kozelek — now in his late 40s — had managed to completely overhaul his songwriting style, adopting a conversational, highly improvisational method that was closer to monologuing than conventional lyrics. He also became much funnier, though often with a self-lacerating, melancholy edge.

After Benji became his biggest commercial and critical hit in years, two things happened. The first is that Kozelek started putting out music at a dizzying pace. Since Benji, he’s put out six albums as Sun Kil Moon, plus an additional seven LPs and two EPs under his own name. He’s continued to work in the same vein as Benji — long, autobiographical songs set to spare instrumentation — as well as branching out with synth-pop and folk-jazz experiments.

He has said in interviews — which he gives sparingly these days, and typically only with other acclaimed singer-songwriters like Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers — that he’s grown far more comfortable in recording studios in the past five years. So comfortable that he’ll often make up songs with his backing musicians as he’s recording them. “It took me years to get to a place where I’m relaxed enough to not have anything prepared,” he told Bridgers last year.

The second thing that happened is that Kozelek has acted like a jerk in public on numerous occasions. His offenses include gratuitously insulting a prominent music critic to her face and at a concert, and instigating a bizarre feud with The War On Drugs that was sparked by the band having the temerity to play too loud during his set at a music festival once. The degree to which this has influenced his reputation with the press is hard to quantify, but Benji going M.I.A. on so many “best of 2010s” lists doesn’t seem unrelated to Kozelek’s poor (and highly publicized) behavior.

Then again, it’s not as though Kozelek has put out any under-appreciated classics in the past several years. I definitely couldn’t hang for long after Benji. My interest started to wane around the time of 2015’s interminable Universal Themes, which ends with a 10-minute dirge about how he spent $17,000 on tickets to see Manny Pacquiao fight Floyd Mayweather, among 27 other topics. After that, my focus plummeted rapidly.

His work since has been spotty to the extreme; “he sounds like he’s making up songs as he’s goes” functions as both a criticism and an accurate description of his aesthetic. Keeping up with his output is akin to walking on a treadmill set to a steep incline — it requires a lot of effort and feels like it at all times.

But this week I was moved to do a survey of the dozen-plus (!) records I’ve missed out on. Why? I’ll explain in a minute. For now, let me explain what I found: Lots of very, very long songs about boxers, true crime, the need for gun control, mortality, Kozelek’s inability to relate to young people (especially young female fans), the hypocrisies and excesses of modern music journalism, and so on.

Every now and then I would come across something I kind of enjoyed, like “Philadelphia Cop” from 2017’s Common As Light And Love Are Red Valleys Of Blood. Actually, I don’t like the whole song — it’s nearly 11 minutes long, and it’s pretty much just Kozelek talking over a backing track that sounds like a Casio preset — but there are moments I enjoy, like the conversation between two vapid music journalists that takes place at around the two-minute mark, which (I must admit) is laugh-out-loud funny.

I had a similar reaction to “Coyote,” from Kozelek’s first album of 2019, I Want To Die In New Orleans. For the most part, it’s a slog in spite of the instrumental backing by Dirty Three drummer Jim White and the great saxophonist Donny McCaslin, who played on David Bowie’s Blackstar and is mostly wasted here. However, the part where Kozelek talks about trying to catch a skunk in his house — “What the f*ck am I gonna do if I find a skunk? I’m not a skunk catcher!” — did make me chuckle.

As you can tell, these aren’t really songs as most of us commonly understand them. They’re more like podcasts. Kozelek is basically just riffing extemporaneously about what he did today. (Calling his 2018 Sun Kil Moon release This Is My Dinner verges on knowing self-parody.) Here’s some helpful feedback: Time-stamping the topics contained within each track would make them more convenient to listen to.

While I can’t say I much liked any recent Kozelek record during my recent dabble, I did myself appreciating their existence more than I did previously. Here’s the thing about walking on a treadmill — as unpleasant as it can be in the moment, you know it’s good for you in the abstract. And there are certain things about Kozelek’s recent work that I can appreciate in the abstract, particularly how he continues to put out challenging and thoroughly idiosyncratic music that sounds almost nothing like the albums he made when he was younger. No matter what else you can say about him, he’s not resting on his laurels.

Kozelek is one of the only contemporary artists I would liken to the greatest of the great singer-songwriters — Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen — in one very narrow, specific way, which is that’s he’s in the midst of a genuinely batty “wilderness” period. The mid to late-2010s are to Kozelek what the 1980s were to those artists, a time of apparent confusion and incoherence that many years after the fact came to be viewed as fascinating, even good. Again, on paper, Kozelek’s willingness to follow his muse, even as he alienates most of his audience and pretty much everyone else in the world, is kind of admirable, particularly at a time when even music critics generally don’t have the patience to support artists who don’t deliver immediately accessible bops.

I can’t pretend to understand what Kozelek is doing, or to defend it. But I also can’t condemn it outright, either. There’s an outside chance that he’s producing works of advanced genius that only future generations will able to comprehend decades from now. At the very least, his music is strange, unpredictable and — as my mother would often say about art she didn’t get — different. I’m glad it exists, even if I’m also happy to not hear it.