Since the release of 2014’s much-lauded Benji, Mark Kozelek has been releasing increasingly prosaic and conversational albums (under his name and as Sun Kil Moon) that privilege stream of consciousness writing versus traditional lyrical craft. He’s been distancing himself from songs in the conventional way that many of us understand them, instead privileging near-spoken word pieces with moments of leaden singing throughout atop pretty innocuous sounding music. Kozelek has also been making himself into an unfavorable figure in the press, often making curmudgeonly statements that are at times sexist and homophobic, thus inciting a moral reading of both him as a person and of his work.
But it’s not intriguing to discuss whether or not Kozelek is writing songs that are as good as his earlier Sun Kil Moon or Red House Painters classics. (He isn’t.) And it’s also not interesting to discuss whether or not there are problematic elements in his worldview. (There are.) Instead, what’s most intriguing to consider is how he calls the relationship between the listener and the artist into question with his recorded output and his remarks. This is also what makes his new collaboration with Jesu 30 Seconds to the Decline of Planet Earth intriguing as well.
As a letter from a fan that Kozelek reads on “Hello Chicago” states, the distance between Kozelek’s life and his songs is shrinking. As much as listeners are comfortable with the understanding that an artist is using their life as raw material, there is a clear discomfort that comes along with Kozelek’s recent work. Kozelek actively challenges the meaning of confessional songwriting within the singer-songwriter genre as he puts emphasis on logical linearity versus lyrical poeticism in service of emotional truth. That means his words (and music) can vacillate between genuine insight, problematic moral territory, and even dull observations of daily life, all presented within a plainspoken approach that doesn’t grant any importance of one word over another. There is no real sense of build or climax in his new songs, excepting a stray chorus or repeated lyric every now and again. By the same token, he’s comfortable with letting his songs gestate to distended lengths — the shortest songs here are around five minutes, while others clock in well over 10 minutes. This experimental approach feels genuinely innovative at times, if not completely effective overall.
Unlike songs that are shopworn and deeply developed, Kozelek’s new music feels especially ephemeral and easy to discard. We get the sense that we hear thoughts as they naturally occur to him. For some songs, like the opener “You Are Me And I Am You”, a lovely note to his father, this works well. But for others, like “Bombs” or “Wheat Bread”, the style falters, running itself into a wall. Justin Broadrick, working under the guise of Jesu, provides backing on these tracks that serve Kozelek’s approach well. Stylistically varied, the sounds shift from Kraftwerk-like uplift to edgeless, weightless trip-hop. Never really getting in the way, but always ingratiating upon further investigation, Broadrick’s music here works more as pleasurable ambience than anything else.
When listening to an album like this, it’s easy to wonder where the utility in this music lies. A significant reason that popular music has continued to exist as an art form is the replayability of the music itself. That is why so many songs are tightly structured at three minutes long. 30 Seconds to the Decline of Planet Earth stands in direct contrast with to this. The real meaning of music might be a lot more similar to the reason you’d see an old friend that you haven’t caught up with in a while: you’ll hear about what’s been happening, hear them complain about facile things, and talk about what interests them now.
If you’re lucky, they might startlingly illustrate their generosity, like on “Twenty Something”, where Kozelek sings to a young novelist named Johnny Saint-Lethal, who gave Kozelek a copy of his book. In the song, Kozelek wishes him luck and talks to him about aging and how the golden years for a man are from ages 27 to 33. He even gets a crowd in Austin, Texas to sing one of the album’s few choruses, wishing Johnny Saint-Lethal luck. This song asserts real lived experience, the kind of thing that is worthy of Kozelek sharing because it’s something that he’s lived himself. But Kozelek can also be blunt and perplexing, like on “He’s Bad”, which is a lengthy character judgment of Michael Jackson that features the repeated phrase, “He’s bad, and he’s dead, and I’m glad.” He even explains varying levels of “Fuck you” — from casual to angered — on the song “Wheat Bread”, which is both relatable and boring, like a lot of the things people talk about.
New Mark Kozelek albums don’t feel like albums anymore. They feel more like visits — an unloading of a very sensitive man’s mind to a sympathetic listener. Their utility isn’t due to their songcraft or lyrics, but more to the way in which Kozelek can relay the experience of his life that’s by turns dull, intriguing, nerve-wracking, and imbued with beauty. A listener’s interest in this music will only go as far as their patience for the kind of man that Kozelek is — the craftsmanship and artistry that sealed his real personality off from the listener is an ever more disintegrating membrane. But, if one can reconcile any annoyance with his character, they’ll not only move past the basic criticisms of Kozelek right now but more deeply engage in how his music reflects the way that many people think and feel throughout quotidian moments in their lives.