(2014 Caldo Verde)
Mark Kozelek and me go a long way. Not personally, of course, but I have been listening to his albums on and off, since, well I can’t remember exactly, but most probably since the Red House Painters’ self titled album (aka The Rollercoaster (the one with Grace Cathedral Park – still probably my favorite RHP track)). After RHP ended with Old Ramon I lost touch with his music for a bit. Not very long though, as I very much liked his albums Rock’n’Roll Singer, and What’s Next To The Moon too, despite their, for my taste rather questionable song choices (featuring mostly songs by AC/DC, who I do not care one bit about in general). But what he made out of these songs was very remarkable and excellent and I liked their more natural and stripped-down arrangements too. Take Me Home : A Tribute To John Denver was even better, although it can’t strictly be called a Mark Kozelek album, but he certainly left a big mark on that record (and was the main force to its gestation).
To this day I still have to get the first few releases by his current band/project/name (as nowadays it’s pretty much only Kozelek recording under that name). 2012’s Among The Leaves was great, I love(d) it dearly. Benji, released earlier this year, sounds a bit more like a band record than its predecessor and was very well received, Pitchfork even described it as ‘his best record to date’. A claim I am not sure I can agree with, not because of the fact it’s not an excellent album, it most definitely is, but as an artist with a back catalog as good as his, I find it very hard to say which one I would consider to be his best. But it’s fair to say that he’s on a roll these past few years – and there aren’t that many artists that maybe even get better as they get older.
These songs are certainly not easy to digest, with subjects ranging from serial killers (Richard Ramirez Died Tonight Of Natural Causes), high school shootings (Pray For Newtown) and people dying in fires (Truck Driver and Carissa).
Anyway, it starts devastatingly beautiful with the sad tale of his second cousin, 35 year-old Carissa that burns to death in a freak accident. In the song he recounts their personal history, she’s still living in Ohio (where Kozelek is originally from) at the time of her death. Whether that story is actually true (though I assume it is) or not matters not one bit. These are the tragic stories that happen all around the world day-to-day. The sad stuff of life. That he manages to write a gorgeous song carrying such an emotional impact, is a testament to his exceptional abilities as a songwriter and storyteller.
Equally touching and tragic is the story told in Jim Wise (the fact that both songs bear the name of the person they are about is also indicative of his above mentioned abilities). Jim Wise, an old friend of his dad mercy-killed his wife but failed to take his own life and now, under house arrest and awaiting his trial, has to live with what he’s done and failed to do. One can imagine how much he must have suffered with her to take a step so drastic so it’s not hard to imagine the pain he’s living through now. Instead of writing that song from Wise’s perspective it’s written from Kozelek’s, describing Wise’s house and the day he went with to see him with his dad and how it felt to watch him go about his day. I almost started to cry when first listening to both songs (and that’s saying something, believe me). Jim Wise is especially loveable musically, with about three and a half minutes it’s one of the shorter songs on here and has got a simple, almost whimsical melody and is only minimally accompanied by guitar/keyboards and a xylophone. Wonderful.
Listen for yourself
These are only the two most outstanding songs in my opinion. The rest of the eleven, mainly long-ish songs (the total playing time is 60+ minutes) are not bad either, I Love My Dad is excellent too – sounds quite upbeat (for Kozelek’s standards) with a stoic proto rock’n’roll sound (all done the Kozelek way, naturally, so it doesn’t exactly sound like the Stooges), it’s like you haven’t heard him before a lot – but it’s very good.
That same thing can be said about album closer Ben’s My Friend, a sort of Jazzy/Soul/R’n’B hybrid of a song, not really my sort of music at all, and certainly not one you would expect to hear on a Mark Kozelek album, but I quite like it too (especially the horns, again not my fave instruments generally speaking, but this sounds pretty good). Plus it’s named for Death Cab For Cuties’ Benjamin Gibbard who is held in very high esteem around here at Back Road Bound, not least for his stunningly wonderful collaboration with Son Volt’s Jay Farrar on the Jack Kerouac-themed One Fast Move Or I’m Gone project.
Another one of the very finest songs on the album for me is the folky, acoustic and lovely Michelene which sounding quite sunny and friendly, with a gorgeous acoustic guitar and piano accompaniment. If you can get past the sorry subject matter of the lyrics that is. It’s about two persons from his life that definitely didn’t get what they deserved. So that contrast between the lyrics and the music is what make it especially good for me.
I Watched The film The Song Remains The Same is probably the most confessional and intensely personal of the songs on here (and with over 10 minutes the longest). In it, he’s mainly dealing with his melancholic nature and the person his is. It’s also the most confessional, as he even apologizes to the (only) kid he ever beat up way back in school and thanks the guy that offered him a recording contract back in 1992. I can’t really think of many other songwriters that would write about stuff like this and that is probably exactly why his songs carry such an emotional impact and have meant so much to me over the years. It’s also the song reminding me of classic Red House Painters tracks the most (it’s up there with the brilliant, depressive masterpiece Michael from 1992’s debut Down Colorfull Hill), which is nice.
An utterly remarkable record by a brave and honest artist that has lost none of his singular qualities. I can’t really imagine him getting irrelevant anytime soon. Excellent stuff.