So his choice to bring in a prominent instrumental collaborator was both exciting and unexpected. However, when I listened to the first track to be released from Perils From The Sea, “What Happened To My Brother?,” I was pretty unconvinced that his choice was yielding worthy musical results: It sounded like Kozelek sort of lazily singing over what they used to call IDM, without the nuance and complexity of his usual work.
But now hearing the thing in full … I’m just in love with it. I dunno if it’s the lovely weather here in New York or the fact that I’m able to immerse myself in this entire record rather than one out-of-context moment from it, but the thing is so gorgeous and so great. Like I said in another Kozelek post, I’ve read and written a lot about Kozelek in my life, and spent a good deal more of that time listening to his music — I’m not exactly an obsessive fan of the guy, but if you and I talked in detail about my one-way relationship with Mark Kozelek over the past 20 years, you’d probably walk away thinking I was an obsessive fan. So my perspective is a little warped. But man, for my money, this is the best thing he’s done in years. Pitchfork is streaming it now.
That makes Perils from the Sea unique in Kozelek’s recent catalog. He mostly turns over all the non-vocal responsibilities to Lavalle, so instead of plucks and strums, we hear forlorn beeps and bloops-- somewhat more hushed than on the Album Leaf output, yet distinctively textured and tailored to Kozelek’s signature phrasings. Lavalle favors a subtle pulse and thrum that gently reinforces the concreteness of the details. On “Caroline”, the stuttering beat gooses the tempo a bit and gets Kozelek singing faster than usual. It’s another song that contrasts the securities of home (waking up next to his love and her rat terrier pup, hanging around familiar coffeeshops) with the lure of the road, yet the music lends the emotions a new and more urgent desperation. It may be Kozelek’s finest moment since anything off Ghosts of the Great Highway.
Kozelek writes songs by simply letting his mind wander, then spends years retracing his steps on stage. That his songs move by tangent and discursion can frustrate a listener since it means he tends to eschew choruses, bridges, hooks, and other structural embellishments. Instead, his songs are built almost exclusively from verses, and they often worry over a single, simple melody. When it works, as it does on “Ceiling Gazing”, that approach can locate immense symbolic power in even the most seemingly banal items: a scratched copy of Heart’s Dreamboat Annie that he and his sister played countless times, for example, or the lonely house in Ohio where she lives now.
Lavalle understands this, and he crafts beats to represent the mechanisms of memory. Only occasionally do they sound at cross-purposes. The psychedelic synths on “1936” sound too ominous and otherworldly for what is a pretty thin story centered around a special dime, and on “You Missed My Heart”, the burble of background noise cannot redeem a strained account of a murderer who kills-- and eventually dies-- for love. The sentiment is too clever to ring particularly true, which is on Kozelek’s shoulders, but Lavalle’s beats are too noncommittal to add much gravity or levity. Still, the effort is appreciated, if only because the song shows both men readily moving out of their comfort zones. Perils from the Sea may not be a seamless collaboration, but neither artist has sounded so purposeful in his reverie in years.