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Mark Kozelek - Like Rats (Caldo Verde)

19 April 2013

Mark Kozelek’s new record is yet another collection of acoustic cover songs, but this one is unlike any of the others. It’s filled with mostly punk songs, with a few 70’s rock songs thrown in for good measure. Let’s be clear: the punkest Kozelek has ever gotten is back in 2008 when he covered “Celebrated Summer” by Hüsker Dü on his Finally LP. Up until that point, Kozelek was content to play thoughtful Modest Mouse covers and the occasional playful take on AC-DC.

In Feb 2013, Kozelek released “Like Rats” on Caldo Verde Records, his own imprint label that he began back in 2004 in the wake of the widely publicized Red House Painters debacle with Island Records. On “Like Rats”, Kozelek is tackling his toughest audience yet, the punks. Here he has produced and recorded a breathtaking alternate universe, one where the Bad Brains “I” is about personal heartache and longing. One where you can finally decipher the lyrics to The Misfits song “Green Hell”. And much to his credit, where Godflesh sounds like something your mother may enjoy while unwinding on the patio with a bottle of wine.

But in all seriousness this release is just as personal as any of his recent works, which still maintains the tone of regret and introspection that made Red House Painters so special to a lot of fans, myself included. Kozelek may be America’s Morrissey, one of the last true poets of his generation. I have long suspected that Kozelek is capable of delivering a life-ending record, something that pushes even his comfortable fan base far over the edge of despair, and “Like Rats” may be the one that does it.

I distinctly remember hearing Mark Kozelek for the first time because the circumstance was so strange. It was 1997, and I had just moved to Boston. I was with some friends; we were walking around in the rain looking for someone’s house. From what I can remember we were headed out to some show, probably at The Rat, most likely it was a punk show (mere coincidence) or a hardcore show. The Rat was a strange venue to me. Outside and inside, it always felt like it was filled with some of the drunkest people I’ve ever seen in my life. Anyway this particular day, it was a Saturday or a Sunday afternoon. One of those dreary days where you normally wouldn’t leave your house. But in the spirit of the all ages matinee, we ventured out anyway.

As we came walking down this wide street, one could easily hear a very loud stereo coming from one of the old houses. As luck would have it, this was exactly the house we were looking for. I waited outside while my friends collected their friends. While I was out there waiting, this music took over the whole street and was being played so loud and so clear that you could make out individual words.

When my friends finally emerged from this house, I asked one of them what the music was. It sounded so different, unlike anything I had ever heard. It was slow and quiet, maybe more so than Low, the band that apparently influenced them early on. Shortly afterwards the music was revealed to be Kozelek’s first band, Red House Painters, and ever since that day I have been a dedicated follower of Kozelek’s message and his method of delivery.

As a Kozelek disciple, I eagerly awaited “Like Rats”, not knowing the full extent of how incredible it would prove to be when I got it onto my stereo. Shortly after it’s release, I tagged the cover art of “Like Rats” on Instagram. Then I poked around, looking at all the other people who had already posted the same exact image, many with the same exact hashtags. Then a strange thing happened, I started seeing pictures of Kozelek with his fans, presumably taken at live performances. I had to inspect some of the photos at a closer glance and noticed a curious thing. In each of the pictures, Kozelek looks absolutely emotionless. In photo after photo he has this deadpan, expressionless face. Some of his fans seem psyched. Some have thrown a wayward arm around his shoulder. One cherub faced young man stands with Kozelek while giving him two thumbs up. Kozelek looks unimpressed by the thumbs up guy and just about every other guy. It’s probably hard to find happiness again after (what must be) the catharsis of playing Mark Kozelek songs for 65 minutes straight. I can’t speak for him, but I’m just guessing that the last thing he wants to do after playing a set is shake hands and kiss babies.

The truth is, I can’t imagine what it’s like to have thousands of adoring fans. But I do admire the ways Kozelek handles it. Dude has a great sense of humor about being an artist (check out “White Christmas” from his 2001 live record where he goofs during the second verse, stops the song and says to the audience – “THIS IS MY SHOW!”) and is not afraid to laugh at himself. To be openly famous in 2013 means you have to maintain the mindset and patience of a saint, or at least keep up with the illusion. Who knows where they find the patience to deal with these fans. For the people who insist on taking a picture, those awkward men with expensive vintage cameras who love Kozelek, it has become a badge of honor to meet him. I stopped wondering why he looked expressionless and began to instead focus on the fans in the photos. None of them looked particularly sad. Some of them look downright pleasant. What do these photos say about his fan base? I wondered what these folks found in his lyrics. I also wondered if Kozelek found something in them. Do any of these people like the Dayglo Abortions? Probably not.

One of my best friends and old bandmates is an aging punk. I love him to death, but he dismisses Kozelek and openly admits that he “doesn’t get it”. We have debated his merit and we have both suffered crushing blows to our egos in the process. “I thought that if you had an acoustic guitar it meant that you were a protest singer – isn’t that what Moz says?” Touche. Although in some way, Kozelek is a protest singer. If there is something he is protesting it is nameless and ambiguous. Perhaps he is protesting the loss of love, or protesting his own aging. I like to think that Kozelek is protesting something larger, maybe the human taboo of knowing yourself. Having said that, I understand fully that Kozelek’s sound and approach is blatantly anti-punk. My friend says “What’s this guy so upset about? I mean what the fuck is his problem? Why doesn’t he just party?”

My friend’s crass assessment of Kozelek isn’t misguided at all. In fact it made me question my own love affair with his work. What IS he so upset about? You could examine his lyrics for clues, but that only leads you to veiled references of doomed romance and failures in communication. We could ponder this question for decades. He wrote his letters in Kanji. He fell in love with a girl who didn’t love him back. He “looks at the ceiling with an awful feeling of loss”. In a nutshell, that’s Kozelek. But unlike the masses of acoustic singers with sad sack attitudes, Kozelek isn’t afraid to serenade you, isn’t afraid to let you hear the pain in his voice.

Maybe he doesn’t know why he’s so upset. Alternatively, maybe he knows exactly what makes him so upset but he’s not in a position to do anything about it. After all, some people are so fucked up that feeling bad makes them feel good. And on the other hand, some people are so normal that they have to get fucked up to feel good. Others are a little of both. Some have their own personal demons. One thing is for sure, Kozelek is the real deal. His songs and lyrics are instant therapy for anyone who fosters the patience to hear him out. Make no mistake though, the acoustic guitar is his barrier to entry, the very thing that keeps people coming back for more and/or the thing that will likely keep them at a safe distance forever. It would be too easy for him to come out with a huge Marshall stack and pull a Bob Dylan on all of us. Plus, at that point (if it ever comes) there would be no going back.

On his latest release, Kozelek covers punk songs better than most punk bands because he makes the songs his own instead of just regurgitating their rhythms. His versions of The Descendents (“Silly Girl”), The Dayglo Abortions (“I Killed Mommy”) and Ted Nugent (“Free For All”) exceed all expectations. His cover of the AOR Disco ballad “Right Back To Where We Started From”, originally recorded by Maxine Nightingale in 1975 is incredible. For the record, his version of “I” (the opening track on this record) may be the best Bad Brains cover I’ve ever heard in my life. Dead serious about that, it’s that good. Kozelek doesn’t care if you like Nugent or Godflesh, instead his mission may be to destroy your pre-conceived notions, to make you rethink deeply held beliefs. The kind that can clog up your mind.

Like my friend says, Kozelek is “sad and disturbed”, a statement which I find to be both incredibly accurate and totally shortsighted. When Kozelek began recording cover songs, he was taking a huge leap of faith in himself and his audience. He stepped out onto a ledge, in a way he took a huge risk of alienating his fan base by deciding to play “Little Drummer Boy” instead of old classics like “Medicine Bottle” or “New Jersey.” Coincidentally, one of the first cover songs he chose to play and record was “Shock Me”, from Kiss, a song that appears on their 1977 “Love Gun” LP. It’s fitting (and telling) that he chose “Shock Me”, because it was the first song that guitarist Ace Frehley sang for the band. It took Frehley four years to find his voice in Kiss, four years of being taunted and tempted to break out of that mega-rock band mold that they had worked so hard to cultivate and develop. Four years of being told “you can’t possibly do this”, four years of waiting and watching. Like Frehley, Kozelek made the leap. In the process, he found out that the rewards of taking a chance can (and occasionally do) outweigh any ongoing internal dialog or external criticism.

Kozelek’s choice of cover songs is always excellent and usually a surprise, I’ve never caught him live but I do own just about everything he has released. Things are long overdue. If and when it happens I will try to remember that I don’t necessarily need or want to know the events that inspired “Rollercoaster” or “Uncle Joe”, nor do I need to take a picture with him. The intimate details behind his lyrics are his, not ours. I feel lucky that Kozelek is still writing and touring, and even luckier that he is still willing to share his songs with us. These days, guys like Kozelek are few and far between.