It was July 2006. I was camped out underneath a tree on the grounds of Ottawa City Hall taking in a Sunday line-up at a side-stage of Bluesfest – an annual two-week concert festival that has, on occasion, put other festivals in other cities to shame with its roster of riches – on a hot, humid, sunny day without water. I had my best friend, Wes, beside me. We were taking in a mid-afternoon set by moody sadcore icon Mark Kozelek. Wes was pointing out to me that a few of the songs being played solo by Kozelek and a trusty acoustic guitar were taken from the last Red House Painters album, Old Ramon. However, I was much more of a novice when it came to the artist’s material. This was my first time experiencing anything by Kozelek in a protracted manner, though I know I’d heard of him before on the radio: CBC Radio Ottawa made his AC/DC covers album, What’s Next to the Moon, one of their Best Albums of the year when it came out in 2001. Still, I was enrapt and I was enjoying myself, even though I was parched.
However, clearly, Kozelek seemed to have a demeanor on stage that suggested he would have been somewhere else. This was more or less confirmed when, during a break between songs, he took a look at the crowd and said something like “There sure are a lot of white people out there.” I didn’t think much about the comment at the time, it sailed over my head probably due to the lack of hydration. However, a few days later at work as a ministerial correspondence writer in the federal government I ran into a colleague who had been at the same show, and he brought up the comment, likening it to being racist. I’m pretty sure that colleague didn’t go on to become a Kozelek fan, as I did, but that’s a telling point: at least at Bluesfest 2006, Kozelek alienated at least one person in his core audience with a comment that really, in retrospect, didn’t seem to have much of a point other than to suggest he was having less than a stellar time. Or wasn’t playing to what he felt was his intended audience.
Well, the latest album from Kozelek, a sort of live album meets compilation album called On Tour: A Documentary – A Soundtrack, is a two disc set that doesn’t serve much of a point, either. For one, a clutch of these songs are actually studio versions of material already found on 2010’s Sun Kil Moon album Admiral Fell Promises. I don’t know about you, but if I wanted to hear songs from that record, I’d go to my CD collection shelf and pull that disc down from it. Secondly, this is the soundtrack to a film that was released in 2011, so this album comes a little more than a year late. Thirdly, even much of the live material that graces this collection of 33 songs, clocking in at more than two hours in length, has been released before. I turn to my fellow reviewer at Pitchfork, Stephen M. Deusner, who seems to be more of a Kozelek completist than I am, who notes that “everything here – save a few noodly sketches like ‘Seville Piece’ and ‘Backstage Unitarian Piece’ – has been available in some form or another before now. That includes the four bonus tracks and even ‘Koko’, a typically atmospheric instrumental by Caldo Verde signees Desertshore.”
So, knowing that, you may ask yourself: Why? Why is there the need for this soundtrack? If you’re a Kozelek obsessive, you’ll have the vast majority of this material, aside from the interstitial bits (and do you really need to shell out your hard earned cash to simply hear Kozelek fooling around with his nylon stringed acoustic guitar?). And for the beginner to Kozelek’s signature sound? I would gently grab you by the shoulders, spin you around and send you off in the direction of Kozelek’s high water mark in the form of 2003’s Sun Kil Moon album, Ghosts of the Great Highway. I really don’t get the purpose or the intended audience for On Tour: A Documentary – The Soundtrack, particularly when it boasts not one, but two versions of “Ålesund”, for instance. Maybe casual listeners might be enthralled, but how many of those are there out there? I took a peak at Amazon.com on Dec. 8, 2012, when I sat down to write this review, and this set was ranked No. 152,530 in the Music section. Clearly, this collection is of interest only to the long tail. And, one more thing, while I’m on a bit of roll, if you come to this album (or albums) looking for Kozelek to interact with his audience or say something controversial, he doesn’t. All you’ll hear is a muttered “thank you” at the end of the occasional song, and that’s it.
To be charitable, though, there is some use for this album. If you simply want two hours plus of just Kozelek and his acoustic guitar, save for the odd performance where he’s joined by an extra finger picker, this might be your bag. If there’s one thing I can say about this album: playing this in your home (or apartment, in my case) is a transformative experience of sorts. You’ll feel as though you’re in a cathedral instead of your humble abode. Kozelek’s playing is bright and expansive, and his laconic mumble-yet-croon of a voice is a true treasure. There are segments where you’ll be enrapt – my favourite here is a stripped down version of “Carry Me Ohio” – and even if Kozelek is a bit of soft shoe Neil Young knock off, it’s easy to be carried away by his intense and downbeat vision. However, being held in Kozelek’s sway will come with a bit of an expense.
By the end of listening to this very long album, you may find yourself in a melancholy mood. I made the mistake of playing these discs on the afternoon after I’d finished up one contract at my workplace (I’m currently looking to be hired back, but that’ll require a few weeks of downtime and paperwork), and, alone for the first time in ages in my apartment on a “day off”, I felt as listless and lonely as many of these songs are. By the time I’d gotten around to hearing this album for a second time, I felt I could have used a good stiff drink. Which is to say that, if the artist in Kozelek felt there was a need for this soundtrack, he might have been better served paring it down to a much more manageable single disc. (Certainly, he could have removed the studio versions of songs from Admiral Fell Promises for one.)
All in all, On Tour: A Documentary – The Soundtrack is simply too much of what’s already a crowded slate for Kozelek – another live album and a covers album are expected to drop on the same day in February 2013 – and suggests that it is solely the product of a man’s ego spinning out of control, with a necessity to repackage material that is already out there in the marketplace. If one can say anything about this soundtrack, it is the sage advice that perhaps Kozelek himself might have taken on that summery day in 2006 in Ottawa: sometime saying less, or saying nothing at all, is worth a lot more. On Tour: A Documentary – The Soundtrack is an overabundance of a good thing, particularly with other Kozelek material coming down the pipe. Save your money for those goodies instead.