The Interminable Analysis of Mark Kozelek

When Your Idols Kill Themselves

Mark Kozelek (image by Ralph Arvesen [CC BY 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons)

I. Him

I first entered Mark Kozelek’s singular universe in 1996, having just moved to Philadelphia. Not quite homesick, I was more dizzy from that initial hit of pure loneliness. His band, Red House Painters, played sprawling, immersive, and oblique songs—making albums that a critic might say “reward patience.” Kozelek’s brand of melancholy matched my state of mind. His songs were the pensive soundtrack to a dreary winter on the Northeast Corridor.

Kozelek eventually retired the Red House Painters and reemerged as Sun Kil Moon. The change was by degrees—a sort of clarification. He dialed back the reverb, pushed the guitars up front, and wrote more personal and straightforward lyrics. The songs were elegiac, a sort of mourning for nostalgia itself. Whether a lost relationship or former boxing champ, the object was memory itself.

With the release of his critical and (modest) commercial success, 2014's Benji, Kozelek stripped his album of any pretense whatsoever—so much that having a moniker at all seemed perfunctory. We learned about the tragic deaths of his uncle and second cousin, his father’s love of Panera Bread, and the statistics of his early sexual experiences.

Each subsequent record has become more intimate and immediate. There’s only a present tense in Kozelek’s musical world—and, as such, any elegiac notes would ring false. It’s not that there isn’t death and nostalgia, there’s just little distance from that loss.

To date, Kozelek has released five albums in 2017. I recall waiting five greedy years between Red House Painters records. But the pace of his current output is reaching Merzbow levels of prolific. Where the philosophy of the perfect pop song is to “leave ‘em wanting more,” Kozelek’s guiding philosophy seems to be “leave ‘em crying ‘enough’.” I recently wrote about the ongoing dialogue between the artist and the need to create—or, in other words, the relationship between the creator and the muse. Seen this way, Kozelek is freebasing Viagra and the two have been fucking like rabbits.

As a producer and label owner, Kozelek has embraced the ephemeral spirit of the Information Age. His output and touring schedule are like his lyrics: a steady stream. And while the results can be mixed (some songs are the screeds of an “angry old man,” others are meta-narratives of their own making), they clearly are the singular expression of their creator. He makes music like we post pictures of brunch—often and without thought.

But without the financial and physical constraints of the traditional recording industry, his songs have become stream-of-consciousness monologues, rants, and boasts. 2012’s Among the Leaves was the first record about which I was ambivalent. Despite some highlights (namely the title track), two songs in particular raised my doubts: “I Know It’s Pathetic But That Was The Greatest Night Of My Life” and “The Moderately Talented Yet Attractive Young Woman vs. The Exceptionally Talented Yet Not So Attractive Middle Aged Man.” Both portend the artist we’ve come to know: enamored of his sense of irony, unconscious of his misogyny, anxious to control his mythology, and unedited.

I last saw Kozelek play in 2014, in support of Benji. And he was as spellbinding as he was when I saw him front Red House Painters. Age had served him well. Despite Benji’s “raw” honesty, he seemed relaxed. The suffocating tension of his previous band had popped—and Kozelek bravely showed us what oozed out.

But near the end of the set, he went on an extended riff about getting a blowjob: an alleged encounter with an enthralled extra while filming Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth. In that moment, Kozelek regressed from the artistic icon of my imagination to a middle-aged man forcing his ejaculating penis into my mind. I was heartbroken. And in light of the revelations about Harvey Weinstein, this persona is particularly fraught.

But three years later and two into my psychoanalytic training, I’ve come to see this moment very differently. Shakespeare wrote, All the world’s a stage. Freud might say, All the world’s a couch.

II. Me

Near the end of his life—body riddled with cancer and fleeing the Nazis—Freud wrote a critical paper, “Analysis Terminable and Interminable.” In it, he reflects on decades of practicing and investigating his therapeutic technique to clarify what it is to be “fully analyzed.” In other words, he’s trying to define what it means to be “cured.” He writes:

Experience has taught us that psycho-analytic therapy — the freeing of someone from his neurotic symptoms, inhibitions and abnormalities of character — is a time-consuming business.

The problem Freud confronted at the end of his career is whether there’s an innate instinct to resist getting better. He identified that in some patients “all the mental processes, relationships and distributions of force are unchangeable, fixed and rigid.” They are marked by “an exhaustion of receptivity — a kind of psychical entropy.”

Mark Kozelek comes to mind.

In listening to his latest album (a collaboration with some excellent musicians), the familiar spoken-word monologue over repetitive motifs immediately strikes one as a musical language entirely distinct to Kozelek. And, thanks to my training, it also reminds me of listening to the free-flowing monologue of a psychoanalysis.

I see Kozelek in a new light now. Understanding oneself is, indeed, a time-consuming—and messy—business. We psychoanalysts like to encourage patients to “say everything.” The idea is to speak whatever comes to mind, for if you can be honest in the presence of another, you might get better at being honest with yourself. And, just maybe, you can approximate a healthy relationship to your unconscious impulses. My sense is Kozelek has taken this notion to heart, sleeve, and vinyl.

Each song on each (long) album feels like the content of its own therapeutic hour. And I can’t help but imagine Kozelek “on the couch,” just saying whatever comes to mind. After all, the “couch” is the very place to share one’s fantasies of anonymous sex, petty rivalries, or subjugating female journalists.

We often talk about the analyst’s “evenly hovering attention,” a state where one remains open and free of preconceptions. It’s a position where the listener’s conscious and unconscious are engaged in equal measure. Think back to a time talking to a close friend when your mind wandered. In most cases, you’re likely preoccupied. But in some cases, that’s your unconscious creating a fresh connection to the content of the conversation.

I tried this with Kozelek—and it worked. Just not in the way I hoped. I was filled with a sadness—a longing for a dead past—instead of the fresh compassion I desired. It was as if the tones and themes of Red House Painters were made manifest. I was struck by a sense that my idol had died and that Kozelek himself had pulled the trigger.

On Among the Leaves’s “Sunshine in Chicago,” he sings:

Sunshine in Chicago makes me feel pretty sad
My band played here a lot in the ’90s, when we had
Lots of female fans and fuck, they all were cute
Now I just sign posters for guys in tennis shoes

I remember once coveting those cute female fans. I recall feeling like Kozelek could channel my innermost confusion. He gave voice to my wish to become a man that navigated—and survived—complicated relationships, complicated emotions, and complicated women. But today I’m just a guy in tennis shoes (though not particularly interested in his autograph).

I’m reminded of the conflicted role of nostalgia in one’s life. (I’ve written about the subject before.) There’s a certain pathology in memory—a desire to go backwards, a resistance to change. As much as I might think Kozelek is in a creative rut, I realize that I long for a musician that no longer exists. There’s a fundamental dissonance at play, between the Kozelek of my mind and the “real” Kozelek. In both cases, we’re subject to fantasy: mine of the artist I want him to be and he of the man he wants to be.

And it wasn’t until I thought about him in this frame that I came to better understand myself. In the aforementioned paper, Freud talks about an innate strife between an instinct to create unities (a sort of “life” instinct) and one disposed toward degradation and destruction. He describes the latter, which he called the “death” instinct, as the “urge of what is living to return to an inanimate state.”

Some Freudian devotees take this literally. They see a patient’s inability to create mental, emotional, and physical connections as an imbalance—a preponderance of “death drive.” Like most of Freud’s theories, I prefer the metaphor. It’s this strife, an inherent oppositional force, that makes us the complex people we are. And in longing for the Mark Kozelek of the past, I’m embracing the “exhaustion of receptivity.” I’m hastening my psychic death.

Mark Kozelek might be old and crotchety, perhaps even set in his ways or, worse, unlistenable. But he’s remembering, repeating, and working-through. For that’s the project of the therapeutic process. We must identify the old stories that keep us stuck—those ideas we embrace because they’re familiar and those memories we refuse to feel with fresh eyes. All so we can live better in the present tense.

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