While most every indie rock fan is familiar with Mark Kozelek’s work in some form or another (be it solo, with Sun Kil Moon, or with the Red House Painters, which are all basically his projects at the end of the day anyways), even the most die-hard devotees of Kozelek’s moody rock vibe have had a hard time keeping up in the past few years, as Kozelek has been releasing material at an absolutely Pollard-esque pace. Since the start of 2012 alone, he’s released the Sun Kil Moon album Among the Leaves, the On Tour: A Documentary soundtrack, the Like Rats covers disc, Live at Phoenix Public House Melbourne, his Jimmy LaValle collaboration Perils from the Sea, and countless other bonus live giveaways on his Caldo Verde label website.
Yet ever since he got his nylon string guitar on with 2010’s Sun Kil Moon album Admiral Fell Promises, it started to feel a bit like Kozelek was getting into a bit of a creative rut, circling the same tropes, creating albums that were relatively monotonous in terms of tone and texture. True Kozelek aficionados could still catch him producing acts like Retribution Gospel Choir, yet one of the lesser-known acts on his label was a group called Desertshore, which was formed by Phil Carney and Chris Connolly, two alumni from Kozelek’s former outfits. Kozelek guested on the group’s instrumental debut album, 2010’s Drifting Your Majesty, and took some vocal duties on the group’s second, 2011’s Drawing of Threes. Even with that help though, Desertshore, seemingly named after a lesser-known Nico album, never could fully step out from under Kozelek’s looming shadow.
Now, with the aptly-titled Mark Kozelek & Desertshore, the members of Desertshore play the Band to Kozelek’s Dylan, and the result is a loose, personal, surprisingly raw album that features a slightly less rigid version of the full-band “Kozelek sound” while the lyrical front strips away a lot of metaphor and simile to give the whole thing a notably straightforward tone, and the new direction, surprisingly, suits Kozelek well.
While Kozelek has been able to write one-offs goofs before, a song like “Don’t Ask About My Husband”, with its old Wurlitzer spinning in the background, makes it seem like Kozelek is gunning directly for some Blonde on Blonde comparisons with this disc, and while he spends the entire chorus of “Livingstone Bramble” calling out how much he hates Wilco’s guitarist Nels Cline (while bragging about his own guitar virtuosity), it’s obvious that Kozelek seems to be having fun with his old friends, sometimes even getting downright goofy. While, at times, he’s expressed dismay about how some people use the names of real people he’s peppered throughout his songs (like Glenn Tipton, for example) as de-facto points of interpretation as to what his songs are actually about, he makes it painfully clear this time out what each song is about: no interpretation necessary.
Simply take the emotional closer “Brothers”, for example, which uses a plaintive piano and Desertshore’s higher-pitched backing vocals to give the listener a trip through Kozelek’s own family history, no repeated choruses to be found but the structure this is in place is simple, effective. It’s hard to hear about family members dying of pancreatic cancer and even natural causes, but the upfront vocal delivery and lack of a drawn-out closing coda make this family history tale come off as very matter-of-fact, raw but not melodramatic. Even when being as uninhibited with his lyrics as possible, Kozelek prefers to not overdramatize his own details, and he’s right in doing so: indulgence has never been his calling card, and even in this context, it’d be a hard sell.
Because the album is so deliberately personal in its lyrical tropes, one would almost be pressed to call this album a confessional record, although some inevitably would want to box it into that corner. Instead, Mark Kozelek & Desertshore is just plainspoken. The chorus of “Tavoris Cloud” sums up the unadorned lyrical nature of the album quite succinctly: “At the age of 46 / I’m still one fucked up little kid / Who cannot figure anything out / Who gets upset and starts to pout.” Conversely, “Hey You Bastard I’m Still Here” is a tale about how he missed out on meeting one of his idols before he died, and talks about how reading the Satanic Bible and watching the film Papillon had lasting impressions on him at a young age. Fans and would-be biographers of Kozelek will have enough to pick apart on this album alone, but truth be told, Kozelek is better writing his own biography than any of us ever could – he just happens to do it through song.
While Mark Kozelek & Desertshore‘s rewards are substantially modest, the tight 10-track collection here represents a new turning point for Kozelek as a songwriter, absolutely not caring about what anyone thinks about him at this point, which led him to getting some of his friends together to make a sweet little record that’s more biographical than allegorical, a fascinating move that works on the lyrical front even if the musical backing, loose and rambling as it is, touches on concepts we’ve heard from Kozelek before (although Red House Painters fans will get a thrill hearing “You Are Not My Blood”, which is one of the most deliberate RHP echoes we’ve heard from Kozelek in years). Although Desertshore do very much get pushed to the background on this record (because this is, as it’s almost always been, the Mark Kozelek show), the group proves to be a great backing group that could very well unleash even more fascinating angles to Kozelek’s songwriting down the line.