Boundary-breaking, honest art
Taking time away from his primary artistic vehicle, Sun Kil Moon, enigmatic Mark Kozelek joins vocalist Petra Haden on an unusual, but eventually satisfying journey titled Joey Always Smiled. Enlisting bandmates Ben Boye, Steve Shelley and Ramon Fermin among others, the pair compiles a seven-song set of genre-defying music. Kozelek blends his deeply personal anecdotes and musings with tracks that range from experimental-ambiance, spoken-word poetry, or alternative-folk. The album is a challenging listen.
“Parakeet Prison” begins with Kozelek speaking, more than singing, “Fell asleep with a headache/ I just woke up and I’m feeling better now.” The granularity of the stream of consciousness narrative manifests itself immediately. Accompanied by a simple, ominous melody played on a sustained piano, Kozelek details mundane, if disturbing, memories using vocal inflection in lieu of traditional melody. Story changes drive the musical movements; they prompt brief, melodic harmonies when describing a Doobie Brothers concert and quicken the tempo upon reaching the titular tale of dying parakeets. Kozelek passes the storytelling duties to actor Kevin Corrigan as a means to compare childhoods. Unsettling, synthesized segments and Haden’s backing vocals serve as sonic backdrops to these bizarre monologues. A similar structure forms the core of “Joey Always Smiled.” Difficult memories of Kozelek’s youth dominate the piece. Through added drums, Haden’s larger presence and shorter song duration, it feels more traditionally musical.
The progression towards accessible pieces continues with “Rest in Peace R. Lee Ermey.” Kozelek’s use of unusual subjects for lyrical material holds constant, but the song centers around backing guitar patterns. Haden actually sings briefly, and her contributions combined with a brighter, guitar-influenced mood fit uneasily alongside lyrics detailing violent and disturbing movie scenes. “Nice People All Around” expands upon this album trend, aided by Haden’s multi-tracked vocals and Kozelek’s first honest attempt at singing thus far.
More musical still, a drum machine opens “1983 Era MTV Music is the Soundtrack to Outcasts Being Bullied by Jocks,” and is soon taken over by jazzy electric piano, guitar and Haden’s atmospheric backing vocals. The lyrics again center around verbose exposition, but the verse contains far more purposeful rhyme and pacing than the previous tracks. Surprisingly, the catchy chorus has a full musical resolution, attained by an ascending piano progression and Kozelek’s emotive singing. Full accompaniment, a distinct three-part structure, melodic verse and singing all add up to “Spanish Hotels are Echoey.” After unnecessarily qualifying, “I’m not a poster boy for happiness,” Kozelek proceeds to share a heartwarming anecdote of a time he imparted worldly wisdom to a couple of kids suffering from depression. There is a cautiously hopeful air to the song.
A truly unique cover of Huey Lewis and the News’s “Power of Love” concludes the collection. The duet’s rendition discards everything but the original lyrics to create a new song that would likely be unrecognizable if not for its title. It is quiet and gentle in opposition to the boisterous and showy nature characteristic of the ‘80s era, which like much of his past, still profoundly affects Kozelek.
Joey Always Smiled is ultimately an incredibly thoughtful, original and difficult album. Fans familiar with Kozelek’s recent work will be better prepared to accept the challenge, while newcomers might struggle immensely at first. Improving with each listen, the songs reveal a bit more of their soul and humanity each time. It is an achievement in artistic honesty and a great album.