An absolute slog of a listen.
For the 5,000th Mark Kozelek-led record released in the last six months, the singer again adopts his tired and true formula in which he speak-sings for minutes on end about anything and everything that comes to mind: dead parakeets, his friend who lived in New York during Summer of Sam who was also named Sam, his friend who played barre chords real weird, some girls who apparently wanted to hook up with a seven-year-old Kozelek and his pals, his love of the first half of the first half of Full Metal Jacket and probably a bunch of other mundane bullshit that no one – even Kozelek – really cares much about. But hey, invite in some famous friends and back it with some maudlin, pseudo-contemplative arpeggios played on either guitar or sparse piano on an endless loop and, bam, you’ve got a 15-minute track right there. Next song.
Joey Always Smiled is more of the law of diminishing returns that one sounded revelatory on Sun Kil Moon’s Benji five years ago. Now, as with his last handful of records, it’s an absolute slog of a listen. Anyone who makes it past “Parakeet Prison” should be given some sort of award (perhaps a life-long pass to never have to listen to another Kozelek record of any kind if he insists on continuing in this fashion). The fact that the album is billed to Kozelek and Petra Haden, a very talented, creative performer in her own right, is more than a bit of a mislead as she only really appears prominently on the pair’s middling cover of “The Power of Love.” But it’s enough to make those who fell under Kozelek’s sway post-Red House Painters through his gorgeously deconstructed covers of Bon Scott-era AC/DC songs wish he’d just go back to doing just that instead of unfurling a seemingly never-ending aural autobiography of the rambling variety.
But hey, at least he always manages to get interesting musicians to accompany him on these self-indulgent projects. Here, in addition to Haden, who’s grossly underutilized, he’s brought along Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley on drums. But rather than allowing Shelley to do his thing, he’s more of a timekeeper in the strictest sense of the word, playing rudimentary patterns behind Kozelek’s rambling narratives. There are moments of brilliance, however, like when he quotes the Doobie Brothers in a minor-led passage after mentioning the band as being his first concert. But these moments are too few and far between to make Joey Always Smiled recommended to anyone but the Kozelek faithful.
That said, he does manage, with the title track, to touch on some of the pathos that made Benji’a narratives so affecting. Joey is a developmentally disabled brother of a friend – the one who plays barre chords all weird and wrong – whose affliction is presented through the prism of primitive understanding of children when faced with the differently abled. It’s one of the few moments on the record that actually manages to elicit any sort of emotional response (particularly for a listen who has a younger sister who is physically and mentally handicapped) through Kozelek’s intimate character study.
Unfortunately, Joey Always Smiled is nothing more than yet another installment in Kozelek’s serialized, rambling reminiscences set to music. Don’t let “The Power of Love” cover fool you: Kozelek isn’t interested in making music that listeners might want to return to with any sort of frequency. Those days, it seems, have long since passed.