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Mark Kozelek is an addict. Not to drugs, not to food, but to his own neuroses. Rigorous autobiography informs every song the Red House Painters’ leader has ever written, each detailing depression, co-dependency, or childhood trauma. He is the sum of his wounds. As with many sensitive souls, Kozelek’s need to document his pain is obsessive. He demonstrates what Nietzsche called the investigation of oneself “to the point of cruelty.” But the catharsis Kozelek receives from exposing himself is a Pyrrhic victory: He has stopped living to document his misery. Only Morrissey rivals Kozelek in his complete devotion to the artistic poignancy gathered from his own failure.
But as with that of Morrissey, Mark Eitzel, or Nick Drake, Kozelek’s melancholia isn’t entirely morose. By clearly detailing his depression, admitting his complicity in failed relationships, and consistently baring himself emotionally, Kozelek offers a hand to those who find themselves in similar situations, his lyrics offering succor to the emotionally drained. As Kozelek asked Alternative Press, “If someone’s singing about something you can relate to, what’s so depressing about that?”
Songs for a Blue Guitar, Kozelek’s fifth record under the moniker of his San Franciscan quartet, is another tour through his troubled psyche. But Blue Guitar is more a loose solo project than a true band album. Kozelek gathered various musicians to quickly hash out very new songs, unlike the laborious studio processes he endures when recording with his usual bandmates. (Ocean Beach, the previous Red House Painters album, bridged the gap between prior records’ studio-scrubbed sounds and Blue Guitar’s more naturalistic settings.) Kozelek’s languorous voice and slow-motion folk chords are still in command on Blue Guitar, but their deliveries are less affected and less laden with effects. The songs are nearly all acoustic, though “Make Like Paper,” Yes’ “Long Distance Runaround,” and Paul McCartney’s “Silly Love Songs” are done as Neil Young–style crunchers. But those few bar-chord stompers did not sit well with Kozelek’s former label, 4AD, especially his massive, one-finger guitar solo that extends “Makes Like Paper” from four minutes to just over 12. Thankfully, John “Breakfast Club” Hughes’ new Supreme Recordings imprint with Island stepped in to release the album exactly the way Kozelek wanted it: raw, indulgent, and plaintive, just like his personality.
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Kozelek’s childhood was one of Midwestern blandness, but the pressures of being a reclusive weirdo in a town of rednecks wore him down, and those small-town attitudes perpetually inform his lyrics. On “Evil,” from the group’s self-titled third album, he sings, “Sad reminder/Of Midwest winter’s snow/Cold Catholic church/Heaven in stained-glass windows.” And later in the same song, his defiant response to two childhood acquaintances who taunted him by saying, “God, do you look evil in the dark” and “Mom and Dad, is it a boy or girl?,” is “that made me feel good.”
Kozelek also continually scrutinizes his family life. During “Strawberry Hill,” from the band’s second record (also self-titled), as Kozelek lies awake in bed while his parents have a party, he hears one say, “He’s not like other boys around here.” And that album’s “Mother” is as Oedipal, touching, and sad as Roger Waters’ tune of the same name. So it’s striking to hear the words to Blue Guitar’s “Have You Forgotten,” which features one of Kozelek’s first truly joyful reminiscences of his youth: “When we were kids/We hated things our sisters did/Backyard summer pools/And Christmases were beautiful/And the sentiment/Of colored mirror ornaments/And the open drapes/Look out on frozen farmhouse landscapes.” The buoyant song is played by Kozelek on acoustic guitar with the woozy accompaniment of Bruce Kaplan’s pedal steel. The sparse arrangement gives the lyrics an added weight—and for anyone who grew up in the Midwest, makes for a song that rattles your memories.
Like many poets—and I do consider Kozelek that, rather than just a lyricist—the city that harbors him also shapes him. When the Midwest is set aside, the Far West steps into its place, and Kozelek’s adopted city, San Francisco, is woven into his lyrics like New York is into Jimmy Breslin’s stories. Songs are named after parks and beaches, and their stories reference the unique streets, hills, and bridges that make San Francisco golden. “Priest Alley Song” is ripe with local imagery: “Kids down Colorful Hill/Recess and fire drill/She likes the side without the heat/Where the sun don’t beat/She likes the cooler side/Of Washington Street.”
Typically, the sights of the city are linked with difficult events in Kozelek’s life. On “Revelation Big Sur,” the acoustic whispers support the words, “I can’t make anything/Of why the brightest light fades” and “It’s your love that I steal/And you’re my cuts that won’t close.” His acute analysis of unhealthy relationships is especially chilling when he sings, “And you’re the reason that I’m down/But you’re the promise that I found/And you’re all that I got.” Time and time again Kozelek professes he’s nothing without Her, yet he always bails. His co-dependency is coupled with an inability to be intimate. That’s a combination that would cause even Norman Vincent Peale to have a bad day—or life.
At times, Kozelek sounds like an unsure poet giving a reading. On “Have You Forgotten,” Kozelek delivers the charmingly clunky couplet, “That’s when friends were nice/Just to think of them just makes you feel nice” with a disarming honesty. But by preceding the naive rhyme with “When we were kids/We hated things our parents did/We listened low/to Casey Kasem’s radio show,” he effectively sets up the “nice” couplet that follows by adopting a child’s viewpoint. (Though not every Kozelek couplet is successful. For example, Down Colorful Hill’s “Medicine Bottle”—“No more breath in my hair/Or ladies underwear/Tossed up over the alarm clock.”)
On Blue Guitar’s title track, Kozelek poetically implies the word he leaves out: “When pretty pictures face back/But your coat’s not hanging on the rack/And blue water turns to…/The place that I can’t get to/The place that I can’t.” The song’s three lazy chords are combined with pedal steel and Kozelek’s debut duet, with Stephanie Finch, to construct a gorgeously crawling weeper.
Unlike most pop singers, Kozelek isn’t afraid to break meter. For “New Jersey” (a version of which appears on each of the second and third records) he sings the written lines “You’re an American girl/Red headed/Eyes blank/Living in a freckle on the face of the world” as “You’re an American girl/Red headed eyes/Blank/Living in a freckle/On the face of the world.” During Blue Guitar’s James Tayloresque “Priest Alley Song,” Kozelek sings, “Going past Golden Gate Elementary everyday” as “Going past Golden Gate/Elementary everyday.” The Sweet Baby James comparison is in no way a slam: Kozelek’s gentle finger-pickings are far closer to that of the ’70s’ quintessential singer-songwriter than any critic’s folkie. And Kozelek is on record as saying he prefers the likes of Cat Stevens and Simon and Garfunkel to Leonard Cohen or Tim Buckley.
On Blue Guitar Kozelek furthers his unique ability to intertwine highly personal originals with suspect cover tunes that also convey his distress. In the past, Kozelek has recorded reinterpretations of Paul Simon’s “I Am a Rock,” Ace Frehley’s “Shock Me,” and even “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But the songs aren’t painted in the gray shade of postmodern irony. “I Am a Rock” is a sublime declaration of wishful independence from feelings. “Shock Me” turns wink-wink lines like “Girl, I’ve been feeling low/So get me high” into naked pleas for support. And “The Star-Spangled Banner” turns into a mournful lullaby. Blue Guitar adds the Cars “All Mixed Up,” plus “Long Distance Runaround,” and “Silly Love Songs” to Kozelek’s setlist. The passion he invests in “Silly Love Songs” is akin to that of Billie Holiday squeezing the ache from a pop standard. McCartney’s ’70s staple is completely revamped as a noisy, 11-minute dirge, with Kozelek rising above his normally conversationally confessional singing and sounding like his guts are being torn apart as he screams, “How can I tell you about my loved one?”
But for all Blue Guitar’s spontaneity, the production on the album’s first single, “All Mixed Up,” conjures the orchestrated power of older Red House Painter tracks. After singing Ric Ocasek’s words, “She tricks me into thinking that I can’t believe my eyes/I wait for her forever but she never does arrive/It’s all mixed up,” Kozelek is joined by Finch for the soaring bridge: “She said leave it to me/Everything will be all right.” But, of course, it won’t be. Kozelek will always find the grief in a situation, and write about the desperation in his turbulent life as a form of release, or he will expertly breathe new life into a forgotten song that says it as well as he could have.
While Kozelek once sang that he’s “bruised internally, eternally,” the humane side of me hopes Kozelek finds peace, and never has to make another record. But the side of me that finds great solace in his songs hopes he’s miserable for the rest of his life.CP
Red House Painters open for John Cale at the Bayou, Oct. 2.