13 for ’13: Mark Kozalek & The Album Leaf – Gustavo

Part 3 of a 13 song recap of my 2013 in no particular order

I’m not sure what to make of Mark Kozalek these days. He’s one of my all time favourite artists of any stripe – his work under both the Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon guises is amongst the most sublimely sad things these ears have ever heard. Sometimes when I’m in the midst of listening to Ghosts of the Great Highway or Rollercoaster or April or Songs for a Blue Guitar or Down Colourful Hill etc etc etc I genuinely believe I’d be happy spending the rest of my life laid out on a sofa with an endless supply of red wine, an overflowing ashtray and Kozalek’s back catalogue on repeat, just watching the patterns the smoke makes in the shaft of light peaking between the curtains. But recently he’s adopted a new speak singing style in which he often just lists things he’s done that day. It’s like that Family Guy gag when they happen upon Randy Newman after the apocalypse. “Yup, Mark Kozalek. He just sits there all night and all day, singing about what he sees.” Occasionally when he’s singing about his wanderings and reminiscences there are enough affecting little details to make it compelling. The rest of the time it’s all just a little bit dull. By it’s very nature it’s hit and miss and I sometimes I can’t help but wish he’d just go back to crafting songs rather than writing in a stream-of-consciousness.

When I heard he was doing an electronic collaboration with The Album Leaf I was wondering if it might force more of a considered approach.  A sort of slowcore Postal Service (sorry but any time an indie doyen meets an electronic knob twiddler The Postal Service have to be mentioned: it’s a law or an old charter or something) sounded like a great idea and I was intrigued to see how it would play out. And for the most part I got exactly what I hoped for. That the results were mixed wasn’t so much about Kozalek’s latter day lackadaisical style: it speaks more of the albums need for some editing than the quality of the collaboration. It’s several tracks too heavy and outstays it’s welcome like a party guest still raiding your drinks cabinet at 6am. But when it works it achieves something quite brilliant which ranks amongst the best work Kozalek has been involved in for a few years (I can’t speak for the Album Leaf to be honest as I haven’t heard that much).

The peak of this is Gustavo, another rambling tale, this one about Kozalek trying to get his house fixed up by some Mexican builders. This story of a spoilt musician and the immigrant worker makes a virtue of his tangents and digressions and makes for a moving narrative-driven song. The subject matter could easily slip into something hackneyed but it’s honest and detailed enough to avoid that pitfall. The electronic backing is sweetly understated, letting him just get on with his story – coming across almost like some kind of sad-sack indie boy hip hop. But, y’know, much more appealing than it sounds. When Kozalek admits that he barely gives the deported Mexican a second thought these days and lists all the things he likes to do in his nice little mountain house it’s a brutally honest example of how that ever popular #firstworldproblems hashtag is often worth a giggle but masks tragic realities with humour. Kozalek’s latest phase of his long and illustrious career may be short of consistency but he hasn’t lost the ability to land an emotional punch plush on the chin when the mood takes him.

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