Debby Downer’s brother got a guitar and recorded an album full of wry observations about people suffering, dying, or just muddling through the challenges of life. This album is elevator music for the ride to the roof of a building you’re planning to jump off. It’s great road music for when you’re idling in your garage with the door closed.
All that said, though, this album is strangely enjoyable.
The singer/songwriter, Mark Kozelek, is smart, witty, clever and OMG honest. His lyrics don’t serve up sentimental mush about the sadness he depicts. In the first song, Carissa, he writes about a second cousin (grandchild of his uncle) who dies in a freakish fire caused by an aerosol can. His approach is typified by his first words:
Oh Carissa, when I first saw you, you were a lovely child
And the last time I saw you, you were fifteen and pregnant and running wild
I remember wondering, could there be a light at the end of your tunnel?
But I left Ohio then and had pretty much forgotten all about you
I guess you were there some years ago at a family funeral
But you were one of so many relatives I didn’t know which one was you
He’s a bit surprised by how broken up he is about it, and goes out to the funeral “though I’m not really needed.” His goal? To learn more about what happened, visit a few graves, and learn more about the cousin he didn’t really know, “For it is her life and death that I am helplessly drawn.”
That’s the whole charm of this album. We’re kind of helplessly drawn to its stories. They aren’t great stories because they are noble heroes (one of the songs is about a serial killer dying of natural causes), but because they are just as banal and real as Joe Sixpack dying of a heart attack shoveling snow or a wreck on the highway. Everyone slows down and looks at a wreck, but what do we really want to see? This album describes it.
One thought repeated twice in the first song bothers me about this album – that he is “Meant to give her [his dead second cousin] life poetry, or to make sure her name is known across every city.” To me, that hope seems so grand that he seems ridiculously self-important. “Now to find some poetry, to make some sense of this, to find a deeper meaning/In this senseless tragedy, O Carissa, I’ll sing your name across every sea.” Sorry, Mark, but I’m not sure that you singing this song in some basement coffeehouse in Amsterdam is going to demonstrate the power of eternal art over mortality.
Perhaps I am just being a jerk. Perhaps he is only singing of giving himself some sense of meaning. The poetry he’s coming up with is so understated. Just a guy with a guitar (a couple drums and harmonies show up on the album, but this is mostly just straight-on singer/songwriter stuff), half-singing unmetered, loose rhymes with a voice like Son Volt’s. For somebody wrestling with trying to bring meaning to the early death of a young mother, he’s not exactly shaking the gates of heaven or screaming on a mountaintop at the gods. He’s gently picking his guitar and telling her story.
To the surprise of nobody who knows us, Robin’s take on the album is both more serious and more generous than mine. Where I find self-importance, she finds a simple acknowledgement of his role as an artist. This is the furthest apart we’ve been on an album so far. I can’t wait for the coming flame wars . . .
Next up: Elegancia Tropical, by Bomba Estereo