329 · 17 May 01
Mark Kozelek: What's Next to the Moon
The last album by his band, Red House Painters, held up in label limbo, Mark Kozelek bided his time during 2000 by playing Stillwater's bassist in Almost Famous and putting out a little seven-song EP with a mix of his own stray songs and some covers. I thought covering both John Denver and AC/DC, in more or less the same style, was a fairly amusing touch. Including three AC/DC covers, all disassembled and put back together as pensive acoustic ballads, seemed basically inexplicable to me, but I didn't spend a lot of time pondering the message. Apparently this was a mistake, as Kozelek has now followed Rock 'N' Roll Singer with What's Next to the Moon, which from the track-listing-less outside looks like his debut "solo" album, but turns out to be a ten-song set of AC/DC covers, all in the same style as the first three, including new versions of two of them just to make sure the point, whatever it is, is conveyed as unambiguously as possible. I now feel almost enjoined to submit hypotheses, but not much better-prepared for the task. After a week of walking around Belgium taking careful close-up photographs of architectural minutiae and clandestine far-aways of oblivious tourists, though, I'm inclined to keep applying the same simple methodology: if something doesn't look right, try getting closer to it; if getting closer doesn't help, try backing away farther; if that doesn't work, either, focus on the empty space halfway between you and it, wait for somebody to walk through that point, and then take the picture of them, instead.
In the album's case, a close examination has the simultaneous drawback and potential advantage of conflating Kozelek's arrangements and performances with Young, Young and Scott's compositions and lyrics. "Up to My Neck in You" is languid and sweet, sparkly guitar chiming under Kozelek's calm, breathy delivery, the combination taking on some of the grace of an old Appalachian folk-ballad. Kozelek collapses the original's half-leering, half-desperate last verse, "I was a loser, / You weren't lost; / Baby you were too good, too good to be true, / What you've got no one else could do" down to merely "You did what no one else would do", the switch from "could" to "would" alone probably sufficient to cleanse the material of its sticky rock-star/stripper lasciviousness.
"Love at First Feel" is languid and sweet, too, but this time Kozelek's version of the lyrics is so pervasively different than the original's that it's probably worth juxtaposing them.
|You never told me where you came from||Didn't know where you came from|
|You never told me your name||And I didn't know your name|
|I didn't know if you were legal tender||And if you were legal tender|
|But I spent you just the same||Well I'd spend you just the same|
|I didn't think it could happen to me||Didn't know it could happen|
|But I fell in love in the first degree||Love in the third degree|
|It was love at first feel||It was love at first feel|
|(I was touched with too much)|
|They told me it was disgustin'||They told me it was disgusting|
|They told me it was a sin||They told me that it was a sin|
|They saw me knocking on your front door||Every night at your front door|
|And they saw me smile when you let me in||I'd smile when you let me in|
|You and me baby||Now it's you and me baby|
|We're all alone||In your house all alone|
|Let's get something goin'||Better make things happen|
|While your mum and dad ain't home||Before your Mom and Dad get home|
|It was love at first feel||It was love at first feel|
|(Feel good just like I knew it would)|
The changes are quantitatively minor, the kinds of transposition errors you might make working from memory instead of the original text, but the effects are too unidirectional for me to believe them accidental. Removing the "never"s from the first verse twists the original's sense of bragging about the encounter's anonymity afterwards into anticipatory ignorance beforehand. Dropping the "to me" from the end of "it can happen" lets the girl into the story a little bit more, and changing "think" to "know" in the same line alters the psychological depth of the surprise. I don't know what to make of the "first degree" / "third degree" edit, but removing the "They saw"s from the third and fourth lines of verse two inverts a public fuck-you into a private understanding, and might be the single crucial detail that turns the song from lip-smacking statutory rape into a persecuted lovers' tale, and switches the intended audience of both the song and the act from the scandalized neighbors to the two lovers themselves. "Let's get something goin'" is a content-less come-on; "Better make something happen" is an expression of mutual urgency. The "feel" in the chorus, in light of all this, seems more like "experience" than "grope", or maybe even like what began as just a grope turning, to the lovers' surprise as much as to ours, into emotional contact as well. Leaving the Young/Young/Scott songwriting credit untouched, when Kozelek has transformed a vulgar, self-satisfied boast into a dual object lesson about the power of editing and the components of personal intimacy, seems coy, if not seditious.
"Love Hungry Man", with some sighing falsetto auto-harmony, doesn't essay as comprehensive a rewrite (a couple "needs" and "wants" are exchanged, and then the redundant second verse is abandoned entirely), but Kozelek's mournful repetition of "I'm a love-hungry man" is enough to shift the focus from an about-to-be-sated appetite to a probably-about-not-to-be-much-deferred loneliness. "Bad Boy Boogie" (fleshed out with a second guitar part and second vocal since the version on Rock 'N' Roll Singer) changes "dirty women" to "pretty women", primly; "all you women come along with me" to "so won't you all come along with me", finding a shy storyteller's invitation curled up inside a swaggering seduction; and unceremoniously deletes all dozen appearances of the doltish title phrase. "What's Next to the Moon" is lyrically almost intact (the title phrase is dumped again, perhaps because it's unearned poetry in the context of the rest of the song), but Kozelek plays it with clomping murder-ballad melodrama, leaving no doubt that it's meant as a genre piece. The soaring version of "Walk All Over You" doesn't try to replace the awkward refrain, attempting to carry it off with earnestness, but has the good sense to repeat the vulnerable "Baby I ain't got much / Resistance to your touch" and truncate the song before the far-more-mullet-headed last verse. The repeated, mantra-like denials in "You Ain't Got a Hold on Me" (Kozelek bookishly replaces all the "ain't"s with "don't"s) remind me of John Waite's "Missing You". A firm "If You Want Blood", sounding more than a little Luka Bloom-like, gamely throws in a few extra "baby"s, and bows out before the questionable "I want you to bleed for me" at the end of the original. Kozelek leaves the inane "Riff Raff" alone, which puzzles me, but "Rock 'N' Roll Singer", here pared down to a plain folk arrangement (the EP version had a band backing) seems deliberately unaltered, because after all Kozelek does want to be a rock-and-roll singer. He cuts this one short, too, leaving out AC/DC's strident final verse about nine-to-five jobs and establishment morality, perhaps realizing that he needs to keep his day-job options open, but as the album fades to a close, at least he leaves us with a potential thesis, that however differently we understand romance and gender-roles, we are all, at least those of us who try to participate in the culture, driven by a unifying dream of making an impression, some kind of impression, on somebody. I'm not sure that's true, since personal understanding and sexual advantage, at least, are time-honored motivations with arguably different structures, but it's something this album might be about, all the same.
When I back away, though, and I often had the same problem with the photographs, it quickly becomes difficult to discern an overall rationale. I took a lot of pictures of details, only to back up and find that there was no vantage point from which the camera could comprehend the whole building. If all Kozelek wanted to do was point out the common ground between him and AC/DC, the cover of "Rock 'N' Roll Singer" alone would have been more than enough, and actually worked better, it seems to me, on the EP, with some of his own songs around it to make his end of the continuum more evident. I can't imagine that he meant this set as a serious tribute to (or critique of) AC/DC, since the musical derivations take even greater liberties than the lyrical ones. And the fundamental enigma in the whole proceedings, to me, for which I don't have even the beginnings of a theory, is why Kozelek would, especially after the three original songs on the EP demonstrated so vividly what a world-class lyrical poet he is, retreat to the words of another writer at all, much less a bad one not meaningfully redeemed by his helpful emendations. Is it a joke, an anti-Moog Cookbook? Surely not with this timing, not released under his real name when he hasn't put out a new serious album since 1996. Writer's block? Dadaism? Time-killing?
Red House Painters: Old Ramon
And as I stand here, waiting for What's Next to the Moon to make sense, finally Old Ramon comes out, liberated by Sub Pop more than three years after Kozelek and the band finished it, and suddenly it's crashingly inconsequential what the AC/DC covers do or don't imply. I will admit to, up to this point, both having really wanted to like Red House Painters, ever since I read in some interview that they were Mark Eitzel's favorite band, and having basically failed. I loved the cover of "All Mixed Up" on Songs for a Blue Guitar, and appreciated that album's experiments with varied tone after the relentless mildness of Down Colorful Hill, the two untitled albums, and Ocean Beach, but it was only Kozelek's EP that sounded interesting enough, to me, that I started paying proper attention to his writing. I'm an avowed opponent of label limbo, and so was going to buy this album regardless of how much I expected to enjoy it, but in truth I didn't expect to love it very much. This one has no covers, and the song titles range from awful ("Wop-a-Din-Din", "Byrd Joel") to mundane ("Void", "Michigan", "River", "Golden"). The artwork doesn't suggest any kind of departure from the RHP albums before it, and although it's tempting to mutter dramatic "four years in the making" intros to myself, really the album was a few months in the making, and three years in the sitting around not changing in any way, so the anticipation is bound to be irrelevant. I wouldn't have been too excited about this album if it had come out on time, so why should I hope for profound catharsis just because there have been delays?
And then the very first second is a loud thump, a gated kick-drum or a car-door closing, and for an hour and twelve minutes my universe is self-contained. "Wop-a-Din-Din", except for the thump, some weird background noises (like a small cocktail party taking place inside a harpsichord), and a couple sections of bleary Mexicana, sounds a lot like the AC/DC covers, and the lyrics, scraps of unremarkable description about Kozelek's cat, make me momentarily wonder whether I imagined (or he stole) "Ruth Marie", but the guitar is mesmerizing, the rhythm is insidious, and by the end I have no trouble allowing myself to become immersed in the same spirit of calm, from the song, that Kozelek gets from the cat, and am thus in the right frame of mind for the rest of the album to unfold.
"Byrd Joel" opens with more jangly guitar and Kozelek's resonant singing, like the folk music from which Soul Asylum's "Black Gold" was extrapolated, but at 1:06 a groaning, overdriven bass and a dry, spare drum groove kick in, and that's the last time there's any doubt about my reaction. Waves of guitar function half like bagpipe drones, half like textured canvas, somewhere between "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" and Grant Lee Buffalo's Copperopolis. A filamentary guitar hook spins through the haze like a character theme, and Kozelek even appears to have learned a little about lyrical simplicity from AC/DC. "She sleeps and won't come back again / From pretty dreams that keep her". I'm sure somebody will say the song is too long (and at 6:25 it's the album's fifth shortest), but I think I could listen to these guitar noises over this drumbeat for an hour, so six and a half minutes barely keeps me from hitting repeat. The noise supplies exactly the energy that the early RHP songs seemed to me to lack, and where I was chronically indifferent and uninvolved, now it takes only a slight volume-dial twitch to make me feel swept up.
But either the noise isn't the only key, or else something it has unlocked doesn't just snap shut again, because "Void" is quiet again, a couple restrained guitars, brushed drums and a slow, reserved bass line, perhaps like a John Denver song less smug about sunshine, or less sanguine about day-to-day survival, any of which I might have said about earlier RHP songs, and yet this time I'm captivated. "Just outside her show-me state", Kozelek murmurs at one point, I think, and I assume this is an oblique reference through Missouri to misery (reminding me of my favorite proposed state-tourism motto, "Missouri Loves Company"). Guitar solos slide by in slow motion, a minute for what would be a measure of Malmsteen, the key transpositions so abrupt that the band hits them like square-edged speed bumps. "Between Days" cranks the electric guitars up again, hooks biting into the spaces between the paced-off hi-hat ticks, and somehow stretches what feels to me, subjectively, like a four-minute song past twice that. The methodical, faintly VU-like "Cruiser", guitars chirping wistfully, completes a three-song run that the clocks claim lasts nearly half an hour, but Kozelek seems to hold sway over duration the way Low controls tempo, and as I'm listening it never occurs to me that things should be proceeding any more quickly. "Michigan", one of only two songs shorter than five minutes, pays Eitzel back for the endorsements with AMC-esque slide-guitar and a shuffling beat, but Kozelek's vocal delivery never falls prey to Eitzel's disabling self-doubt, and again I feel like he's found a narrative midpoint, maybe this time between John Denver and Richard Shindell. The murky "River", which builds to several minutes of cycling cacophony, verges on drone-rock atmospherics, but "Smokey" is pretty and earnest, using fuzzed guitar feedback to provide some of the same airy reverence Low gets from Alan and Mimi's harmonies. And just where the album needs another support, there's "Golden", raspy nylon-guitar twitter goading the song just fast enough that I feel compelled to move, even though there are no drums or other explicit exhortations. "Kavita", the final becalmed waltz, is a bit of an anticlimax, but how else could this record end? Red House Painters haven't changed that much.
The album's flaws are, I think, pretty obvious, or at least there are criticisms that are easy to level. In the end I suspect many people, perhaps including me, will feel that "Byrd Joel" is a rock promise the rest of the record can't quite keep. "River" and "Kavita", in particular, feel to me like Kozelek's tacit admission that he would have written more quick songs if he could, but they only come to him so often. Low's albums are shorter, Eitzel's slow songs come interspersed with spasms of contrasting (albeit self-conscious) rock, Soul Asylum and Grant Lee Buffalo's windows overlook more dramatic landscapes. There's nothing here of "Ruth Marie"'s harrowing intensity, and I very much doubt Old Ramon still represents all the best ideas RHP have had, if it ever did. But it was done when it was done, and the years before we got to hear it don't have to be part of the text and so needn't be answered. Slow, quiet records that don't wholly justify themselves are OK with me. There are plenty of other things I could do with this listening time, but they'll wait. Maybe the next record will fill in the missing justifications, or maybe it will take three or four, or maybe Kozelek won't ever completely escape his torpor. Maybe the AC/DC covers are part of his painstaking and permanently futile search for the kind of showman's bluster that comes to Scott and the Youngs so effortlessly. But not every story can be wedged into formula. I won't pretend I know where Red House Painters will end up, or even that I'm totally sure they're making clear progress. But I care, now. I hear enough in this album, whatever it might have had more or less of, to know that now Kozelek's pasts and futures matter to me. I can go back and listen to the early albums without my finger on the remote control, impatient to decide whether I'm liking them or not. I can wait for the next record wondering what, instead of if. I can let this record end, and sit in the quiet it leaves behind in my house, and for a few minutes not feel panicky and impatient. Before too long, I know, I'll get up and put something else on. There is plenty of music waiting, contentiously, for its chance to trace some contour it thinks my thoughts should have. There are a dozen suspended narratives whose next chapters are sitting on my desk. There aren't enough hours for them, or years. But for a few minutes, I'll just listen to this space, as if Old Ramon's echoes are as slow to leave as they were to arrive. Maybe this record isn't worth three years of waiting, but I spent those three years doing other things, so it doesn't need to be. I don't know how long it will be until the next one, or if there will be a next one, or if any next one will ever bring me anything more profound than a few moments of peace, and a moment or two from now I'll stop thinking about any of those questions. Some other story will start, or resume. For forty minutes, or sixty, or eighty, I'll be someone else, histrionic or giddy or infuriated. But for a few moments more, before some other taxonomy reasserts itself, clock ticks are heart beats, and sadness is dignity, and the next noise can't touch us until we open our eyes.