The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote in On Aesthetics that the task of art lies in setting the inner life to the most violent motion with the smallest possible expenditure of outer life; the artist need not recount momentous events in history and drama, but should rather make small ones important. The theory at work here – which the reader is welcome to reject – is that in extracting a single, simple moment from the endless confusion of ceaselessly active human life, we might more easily delineate the universal idea of beauty which lies behind it.
In his first album of the decade, Mark Kozelek sets out with pianist Ben Boye and drummer Jim White for 2, an album that develops Kozelek’s late-style to embody Schopenhauer’s aphorism and elevate the everyday from a rich inner life. This polarizing period is characterized by long-form spoken word pieces, spilling out detailed diary entries from a life both on the road and at home accompanied by looping, unobtrusive instrumentals. While his detractors certainly seem to outnumber his champions, Kozelek has soldiered on to produce album after album in search of a new voice that approaches its richest culmination on 2.
Unlike previous releases such as Common as Light and Love are Valleys of Blood and I Also Want to Die in New Orleans, Jim White and Ben Boye create a more improvisational feel with a jazzy interplay between instruments. The opening track “Walkin’ in Auckland”, shows that 2 eschews the electronic beat making of previous solo albums for airy textured drums and soft arpeggiated piano. Ben Boye’s pristine keyboard chording on songs like “The Artist” will recall the high harmonics of similarly contemplative pianist Bill Evans pairing beautifully with the as-always delicate nylon-string flutterings of Kozelek’s guitar. Jim White remains one of the best indie rock drummers who made his name with The Dirty Three. His moving brushwork has the uncanny ability to create spacious rock timing where a more straightforward beat would border on suffocating.
It’s a blend that works much better than previous efforts because the heavier drumming on, say, Common as Light began to sound canned in a way that didn’t give the songs their fair due. Here the band plays with a looser, wandering vibe that suits the lyrics’ allegiance to nothing but the muse of its singer.
“Walkin’ in Auckland” and “LaGuardia” follow the previously explored travelogue genre of Kozelek’s recent work. In songs like these, hotel staff serve as a sample of the locale who can be both hostile and hospitable. As far as I can tell, the hotel room provides Kozelek with one of his most reliable creative outlets, perhaps because such places are a final moment of reflection provided on a day of the sights and sounds of a new place. It’s in hotel rooms that most of these songs seem to be written, as announced during Kozelek’s debut of a new song at Toronto’s Great Hall last September.
Typifying the later work of Kozelek comes “Chard Enchilada”, a song about how an enchilada made with chard as opposed to the umami delights of meat has to excel in order to achieve culinary success. As Kozelek advises, “If you’re gonna be a chard enchilada, you better toughen up.” A similar case is presented in the bassoon player: if you’re playing the bassoon you gotta be a damn good bassoon player because it comes with none of the built-in glamour of a saxophone or a guitar. “Is there anybody out there famous who plays the bassoon? I’m talking Kenny G famous.” As if self-struck by empathy, Kozelek hires bassoonist Paul Hanson to show up and play a solo carrying into the outro where a final comparison is made to an albino alligator. The comparison drawn between chard, bassoons, and alligators is significant because it reveals a connection that is tenuous as a daydream, free and untethered in its wonder.
Returning to subjects more readily recognizable as important, “Where Gilroy?” takes gun violence and Trump and filters them through candid conversations with strangers and baristas. Kozelek jumps in and out of dialogues, some productive and some aimless, searching for connection when in a remarkable shift he starts to ask, “Where’s this song leading? Where does any song lead?” It’s moments like these that reveal the astounding meta-songwriting of a musician who’s been at it since the early ‘90s when he made his name as Generation X’s Neil Young.
This sort of self-awareness should be enough to make anyone suspicious of the tired criticism that Kozlek’s recent work has been pointless. Indeed, it’s pointless only insofar as any everyday moment that causes us to reflect on meaning is pointless, which is to say not pointless at all. Even the related complaint of self-indulgence shouldn’t go too far, because although the songs are personal to Kozelek, they are also universal in their mundanity. Are the artists and underdogs of “The Artist '' and “Chard Enchilada” merely localized to one man’s diet or are they any one of life’s innumerable outlets for expression and adversity? Are Kozelek and his family’s declining health unique when a simple abstraction away from the literal subject matter of “My Brother Loves Seagulls” reveals a song about aging itself and the decay of both body and soul?
The ability to produce this late-style cuts clear on the closer, “August Night” where Kozelek declares that it’s taken him 45 years to be fearless enough to write these kinds of songs. Many aging musicians find themselves subservient to the sounds of their youth, a brand that never changes with and yet ceases to be an authentic voice even as they continue to fill up arenas or, more ignominiously, casinos. This is the aesthetic pleasure of being able to experience Kozelek’s late-style, a creative period rarely achieved by even the best of us. This style, as written by Edward Said in “Thoughts on Late Style” is overgrown and risen out of the habitable regions of tradition into spheres of the entirely and utterly personal. There’s a sort of aghast heroism here, a striving beyond a life’s work that is pleasurable yet disenchanted, mature yet humbled.