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.