Kozelek’s style continues to surprise.
In an age of radical overexposure on the part of celebrities and non-celebrities alike, it is an achievement that Mark Kozelek, prolific songwriter of Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon, can make overexposure sound startling and disarming. Thanks to his penchant for album-length collabs (with Desertshore, Jimmy LaValle and Jesu) and his own musical restlessness, Kozelek’s style continues to surprise. His latest work,Yellow Kitchen, finds him working with Sean Yeaton of Parquet Courts; it is his third album of the year so far and almost certainly won’t be his last.
Since 2014’s Benji, but even more radically (and, for some, alienatingly) the 2015 album Universal Themes, Kozelek has adopted a stream-of-consciousness, almost Knausgårdian style, including long, detailed, half-sung, half-spoken descriptions of everything that he did and thought in a given span. We know where he goes, what he does and what he thinks about virtually everything—first and foremost, himself. This approach, not just due to the level of detail but also the delivery itself, is reminiscent of rap. The music, on recent albums, typically settles into a groove, whether plucked or percussed, before abruptly veering into lo-fi interludes and monologic asides.
It can also be reminiscent of film techniques, and Yellow Kitchen is especially cinematic. It begins with him flying to Shanghai with ominous music in the background, discussing Weiner, Trump, Hillary, Bill Clinton’s past misdeeds, illegal immigrants and much else. “It’s a very hard election, isn’t it…” he intones, harmonizing with himself. A rant follows: about Bay Area-tech culture, the death of the music business, the departed Katy of “Katy Song,” the quality of the oranges in the hotel he’s staying in, plastic Christmas trees and his plans for the year to come. It ends like some movies, too—“It was all a dream in the grand scheme of things…now I’m flying home.” Many listeners have found this style ridiculous, but I confess I have always found it gripping—it doubles down on the impulse toward self-documentation rampant in contemporary culture and repackages it in a totally estranging and often genuinely moving way.
The cinematic mood continues throughout the album, with creaking, groaning instruments in the background of “No Christmas Like This” sounding like something out of a German expressionist film, before shifting to a more straightforward shuffle powered by drums and out-of-tune guitar noodling, which gives way once more to wistfulness, woodwinds and reflections on chocolate. I found the lyrics early in “No Christmas Like This” particularly affecting, like something out of a Southern Gothic short story segueing into a heart-baring chorus that could come straight out of “Mark Kozelek: The Musical.”
“I’m Still in Love with You” features haunted house music paired with reminiscences of Mardi Gras in New Orleans—“Everybody’s on St. Charles having fun”—relief at getting positive tests results and eager anticipation of his girlfriend’s birthday. “Somebody’s Favorite Song” shifts gears, musically, introducing more electronic elements, whereas “The Reasons I Love You” is the closest the album has to a hit, with a guitar line that would not be out of place on a Dave Matthews song (Mark, if you’re reading this, I don’t mean this in a bad way!). It’s also one of the sweetest, most straightforwardly romantic songs he’s written recently—you’d never guess a song containing the line “4.99-dollar DVD like Sleepers starring Kevin Bacon” could be this touching.
Finally, the (relatively short, by Kozelek’s recent standards) album ends with its longest song, the 12-minute “Daffodils,” which throws us for a loop once more. It starts off with a piano-driven recollection of an open-mic night and then launches into a kind of horror story, with a dissonant, Yeezus-like beat, one that ultimately finds Koz at his most paranoid, panicked by the sound of cars passing by, the barking of neighborhood dogs and a persistent cough. The oneiric quality is broken by the redemptive image of photographed daffodils and an exchange between himself and a departed loved one, possibly the aforementioned Katy, a lingering muse in Kozelek’s songwriting.
Detractors find his musical output increasingly narcissistic, but I don’t buy it. I’m writing this on the 200th birthday of Henry David Thoreau, who once said, “My life has been the poem I would have writ. But I could not both live and utter it.” Maybe no one can, but Mark Kozelek sure comes close.