Mark Kozelek's book chronicles a decade of lyrical progression

Sunday, December 1, 2019 - 4:45pm

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If anyone’s lyrical progression throughout the decade warrants a chronological volume, it’s Mark Kozelek’s. “Nights of Passed Over II” collects the words from the singer-songwriter’s prolific musical career over the past ten years. The book picks up where his first previous collection left off. The cutoff point between the two anthologies may at first seem arbitrary, though Kozelek’s decision to begin in 2010 makes “Nights” an excellent documentation of arguably the most controversial lyrical progression of the decade. Love it or hate it, the collection is the best showcase of the artist’s singular lyrical journey.

Kozelek got his start in the late ’80s as the lead singer and songwriter in Red House Painters. The group was as close to a boy band as a band could get and still be beloved by future Elliott Smith fans. Kozelek left Red House Painters and started releasing songs under the name Sun Kil Moon in 2002. If any of those original Red House Painters fans were still on board by 2010, it’s hard to imagine they’re still here a decade later.

This anthology shows Kozelek’s contentious lyrical shift from traditional poetry laden with metaphor to increasingly literal accounts of his daily life. After a brief prologue, the book begins with Sun Kil Moon’s Admiral Fell Promises. The traditional poetic style of the lyrics sticks out when compared with the following works, but the contrast makes provides a nice pivot point. Truly jumpstarting the change is 2012’s Among The Leaves. Lyrics from “Sunshine In Chicago” and “I Know It’s Pathetic But That Was The Best Night Of My Life” show Kozelek writing episodic accounts of experiences during tour. 

It’s hard to say anything about 2014’s Benji — Kozelek’s next album — that hasn’t already been said, including the lament that there’s nothing left to say. The album showcases the power of direct nonfictional storytelling in addressing loss. Prompted by his aunt losing her father and daughter in two unrelated freak explosions of aerosol cans, the album is Kozelek’s tribute to his original home in lower-class Ohio. Without instrumentals, not one lyric’s gut punch is lost: “Was it even you who mistakenly put flammables in the trash? / Was it your kids just being kids? / If so oh the guilt that they will carry around forever.” The brilliance of Benji is in its ability to focus on diary-like accounts of life when affected by tragedy. Even as the lyrics forgo analysis for direct accounts, the choice in which stories will be told says everything. Alongside each other, the stories lament that humans’ fragile, expiring bodies are categorically underqualified to hold the lives that permeate through them. 

The lyrics in Universal Themes, when pushed onto paper, seem to stray further away from poetry and toward prose. But without the heavy subject matter of the preceding Benji, the stories feel inconsequential at times. Kozelek allegedly spent much of the album writing bored on a film set, and the resulting lyrics are about as fun to read as Mark is having writing them. “This is My First Day and I’m Indian and I Work at a Gas Station” is a highlight. The lyrics read much like the title: A long, drawn out account of random life moments. The song and all its sporadic lyrics really shouldn’t work, but it’s hard not to love something so unflinchingly unique.

2017’s Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood should also, not by any means, work. Perhaps it only does due to its varied subjects: the 2016 election, the mysterious death of Canadian Elisa Lam and gun control (to name a few). By this point, the poetry of Admiral has all but disappeared and has made room for long, winding prose. Kozelek reads full letters from fans or promoters, which are less surprising in book form. In theory, the last thing the world needed was another take on 2016 politics. And yet, Kozelek himself is the reason these long diatribes stay interesting. The appeal of his work beyond 2017 is similar to the appeal of blogging. This is especially true in book form, without the varying instrumentation with each record. Song topics drift further and further into Kozelek’s daily life. The long, dairy-like entries will be too much for some. For those who have already put in the time to get to know Mark through his earlier releases, the records can feel like catching up with a new friend. Increasingly, Kozelek’s avoidance of poetry and metaphor works to his favor: their presentation with daily subject matter would enter melodramatic territory.

One issue of the book’s form that does hurt the experience is the lack of true cohesion. The book makes sense as a memoir which doubles as an account of artistic progression. However, there’s a certain amount of whiplash from putting the disparate albums together. Without walling off each album, there’s too much proximity between a lyrics like “she wanted love like anyone else … she had dreams like anyone else” and a song called “Suck My Cock War On Drugs.”

The latter song came from one of Kozelek’s rants, which vary from defending transgender rights to critiquing music bloggers. The over-aggression of some of these songs is established by Kozelek’s grounding of the majority of them in sympathy with the experiences of his friends and family. These often come alongside the rants, like linking his disdain for San Francisco techies with gentrification and aggression towards homeless people.

In “Shut Up and Play the Hits,” James Murphy highlights the surrealism of popular artists like David Bowie: “… In my mind he was from outer space, like, he’s not a person. Like this isn’t a person that would wake up and whose foot would hurt because they kicked a couch the night before … The best you could do is just act like them … But you couldn’t be that.” It’s often jarring to find art that solely expresses themes contained in everyday life. Perhaps because popular artists don’t lead “normal” lives, or perhaps because people aren’t interested in the ones that do. 

But daily life outside of tragedy also should have its place in the artistic canon. By removing the artistic musical style, the bare lyrics depict daily life in a tone that reflects what it actually feels like for most people. Many people will find these lyrics self-indulgent. And perhaps they are. But it also allows Kozelek to touch on important subjects that wouldn’t otherwise be addressed. Life isn’t lived in the grand, memorable outliers expressed in most art. For the most part, it’s lived in the moments in between them. “Nights of Passed Over II” is a progression of an artist learning to express those moments.