There’s an old episode of Family Guy where the Griffins encounter Randy Newman while roaming an apocalyptic post-Y2K world (even the premise feels ancient by now). Newman sits at a piano under an apple tree, seemingly among the only things to have survived, and makes up songs that describe his surroundings and things that are happening in real time. That’s basically what Mark Kozelek is doing on his new self-titled album.
It’s a dreary record, with 11 songs that meander aimlessly through the minutiae of what sounds like a banal existence. Kozelek doesn’t sing here so much as murmur out detailed descriptions of his mundane interactions with wait staff in restaurants, fans at shows, stuff he collects, small talk with people in line at Starbucks, listening to Tom Petty, the decor in a hotel room he’s staying in, his guitars, how little he understands the game of football. Two of the refrains, such as they are, on “666 Post” consist of Kozelek explaining the sounds that streetcars, and later, his pets make.
It’s confessional songwriting taken to the nth degree, but there’s no attempt at introspection or any sort of real self-examination (what about that misogynistic streak that manifests in crude come-ons and ugly shout-outs to women journalists, Mark?)—just dismal solipsism. Nor is Kozelek brief about it: the shortest song here is nearly 5 minutes long, and three plod past the 10-minute mark. Though these tracks are technically songs, there are few actual tunes: Kozelek occasionally stretches out words to fit some meter in his head (or just as often crams words together), but there’s not much melody, or even musical dynamics, apart from the interplay between guitar and bass, and an actual chorus, on “Weed Whacker.” He plays the same seven-note riff throughout “Good Nostalgia,” and he spends most of “666 Post” circling through a repeating pattern of chiming harmonics on guitar. On “The Mark Kozelek Museum,” the “ba-da-da-ba-da” backing vocal becomes the word “diarrhea” for 15 or 20 seconds in the middle of the 10 1/2-minute song.
Really, the entire album is the Mark Kozelek Museum, packed with exhibitions in dire need of curating. That’s been a trend for Kozelek in recent years. As the leader of Red House Painters and then Sun Kil Moon, Kozelek wrote in a similar vein, on quiet, often harrowing songs that tended toward autobiography. Still, they were songs, and they adhered to discernible structures instead of stream-of-consciousness ramblings that start and stop according to whim. There aren’t many people interesting enough to make such an exhaustive chronicle of their activities listenable—even the Velvet Underground would have been boring as hell if Lou Reed had sung about doing the dishes, tidying up his apartment and stopping for a coffee before heading uptown to score heroin. With no dramatic tension, pathos or even story arc, these songs are little more than piles of slack words from an artist who has confused saying whatever comes to mind with having something to say.