Photo courtesy of Caldo Verde Records
Joey Always Smiled, Mark Kozelek’s spiritual follow-up to his compellingly mellow self-titled release last year, finds the singer-songwriter reminiscing about formative adolescent memories and contrasting them with his more recent activities. Like listening to a folk rock radio station, the narratives Kozelek includes on this album, announced way back in February, span the 70s, 80s, 90s and today during the collab’s hour-plus runtime, as he deciphers which people and events most shaped the journey to his present self.
This somber, reflective effort shows the innovative singer evolving his stream-of-consciousness musical approach by retaining what has worked on past albums such as uninhibited, personal lyrics, self-aware humor, spooling narratives, delicate but lively playing and morphing song structures. His collaborator here, Petra Haden, an accomplished singer/violinist and member of The Decemberists, has previously worked alongside many artists including Mike Watt, Green Day, Sunn O))) and Morrissey, in addition to releasing her own material. Despite only taking lead vocals on part of the album’s closing song, a mournful, fingerpicked arrangement of Huey Lewis and the News’ “The Power of Love,” Haden’s presence is never absent. Her hauntingly beautiful background vocals complement Kozelek’s gruff sing-talking, creating a winning combination that adds a dose of anima to his masculine perspective.
The album’s sunny, west coast-inspired cover art, mirroring Kozelek’s self-titled release, could have been taken in California or Spain, two places mentioned on the album. He also sings about his roots in Massillon, Ohio and locales in the greater Mid-Atlantic region, continuing a geographic theme found in his many other works. But, although Joey Always Smiled contains hints of the mortal heaviness that propelled 2014’s Benji to acclaim and the urgency that made 2018’s tour diary This Is My Dinner so exciting, it is far from a carbon copy of either. The first new and unexpected feature on this release is Kozelek yielding the spotlight to another vocalist on the opener “Parakeet Prison.”
Halfway through the opening 16 minute track, actor Kevin Corrigan adopts a similar vocal style as Kozelek and, as the song’s instrumental quietly shifts, the two speakers engage in a conversation about growing up in the 70s and what movies, news stories and memories stood out. Kozelek recalls his father taking him and his brother to buy parakeets from an Ohio parakeet supplier that had “thousands of iridescent birds fluttering and fluttering,” only to have the birds repeatedly die shortly after being purchased. Those beautifully sad moments are where Joey connects the most. One of the album’s most powerful lines comes when Kozelek tries to understand his father’s reasoning for buying the birds, confessing, “parakeets dying kept breaking our hearts/but he wanted us to have something colorful and vibrant.” “Parakeet Prison,” with its troubling and noteworthy memories, sets the stage for the spectrum of nostalgia that follows, and its dual vocalists and electronically distorted outro makes the song stand out from the rest of the singer’s discography.
The following song, “Joey Always Smiled,” reveals the album’s titular character, Joey, the physically and mentally disabled brother of Kozelek’s childhood friend, Brett. He notes how everyone in Brett’s family helped care for Joey, who reportedly had a “beautiful smile.” Kozelek admires Joey’s unrestrained joy for life in spite of his circumstances. He also details his friendship with Brett and how Brett’s flawed guitar playing annoyed him, even though, now older, he sees his own imperfections at that age. The song ends with an account of Joey’s fate, and, overall, functions as a tribute to the families of childhood friends and how we, as children, watched them interact in different ways than our own family.
Unfortunately, after the title track the album grows a bit laborious with the requiem “Rest in Peace R. Lee Ermy” and the 9 minute snoozer “Nice People All Around.” The former mourns the death of Full Metal Jacket’s drill sergeant and name-drops everyone from Stanley Kubrick and Vincent D’Onofrio to Jack White and Eddie Van Halen. The song reaffirms Kozelek’s love for Kubrick films. He’s previously sung about The Shining on his self-titled album’s song “Good Nostalgia.” But all we learn here is how he thinks the first half of Full Metal Jacket is better than the second because of Ermy. And although that might be true, it doesn’t measure up to the emotional weight of the two previous songs, despite its pretext being about someone’s death from pneumonia.
The latter song, “Nice People All Around,” follows the typical day-to-day life formula Kozelek has employed successfully for nearly a decade. However, on this track, nothing worthwhile happens and it feels without purpose. He recalls a nautical dream, writes a short story, goes to the gym, reads Mike Tyson, Neitzsche and Joel Osteen, talks about Ohio, visits Chico and attends a Xylouris White concert. It’s a brief snapshot of his life and sheds light on his thought process, but doesn’t have a thematic point to be included on this release.
Joey Always Smiled, however, finishes as strongly as it begins, starting with a song double the length of “Nice People” but twice as intriguing. “1983 Era MTV Music is the Soundtrack to Outcasts Being Bullied by Jocks,” the album’s 19 minute centerpiece with a fittingly long title, raises the stakes by attacking the rock band The War On Drugs, whom Kozelek has disdained ever since the band’s amplifiers drowned out his performance at a music festival. Kozelek compares the band’s sound to music that bullies listened to when he was growing up such as Dire Straits, before identifying as an outcast, singing, “yeah I’m an outcast/you know this/I’m very proud.” Further, he admits to liking the music of Philly native Kurt Vile and, in a tongue-in-cheek way, says he understands why Vile left The War on Drugs to play his own tunes.
Yet, on the surface, “1983” is more of a tribute to Philadelphia than a diss track. Kozelek mentions Bernard Hopkins, Pat’s Cheesesteaks and his love of the movie Philadelphia and how it shows “all human beings are entitled to be treated with dignity, love and respect.” In addition to being the album’s longest song, “1983” is the most important because it connects past memories to the present moment and finds Kozelek in a vulnerable state wondering if his work will be remembered like his influences before him. It also sets up the final original composition, “Spanish Hotels are Echoey,” which finds the singer refocusing from distant trauma to his more recent experiences.
“Spanish Hotels,” like the song “I’m Not Laughing at You” from Sun Kil Moon’s last release, feels like a leftover from This Is My Dinner, given its European setting. That said, the song’s narratives and characters nicely wrap up Kozelek’s goal on Joey Always Smiled: to take an inventory of the people, places and events that lead him to his current reality. If “Parakeet Prison” focused on the 70s and “1983” on the 80s, then “Spanish Hotels” is a 90s and today retrospective. In a meta moment on the song, Stephen Malkmus of the 90s band Pavement, tells Kozelek how much he enjoyed his set at a Spanish music festival that featured this release’s previous song “1983” and This Is My Dinner’s “David Cassidy.” In turn, Kozelek says to Malkmus “you’re my friend and I’m yours/and friends are important/we got each other.”
After, two 20-year-olds ask Kozelek for life advice and he tells them, “it’s an awkward time/but have faith you will find yourself…it’s a scary thing to leave home/and be on your own.” He later runs into fellow folk singer José Gonzáles and comes to realize that they’ve known each other for over 20 years, another indication of the strong friendships in the singer’s life. He ends the song in bed thinking about 90s music and past stays in Spanish hotels while a refreshing Spanish jazz instrumental with triumphant guitar, congas and Haden’s voice bring all his soul searching to a tender close.
What separates Joey Always Smiled from Mark Kozelek’s other releases is his goal of focusing on why people and events influenced him rather than simply recounting meaningful, thought-provoking stories. Here, he handpicks anecdotes and encounters that reflect his own journey of self-discovery. A line from “Parakeet Prison” illustrates the extent of how far back he is looking when he sings, “at the ages between four and seven/my destiny was set in motion.”
Listening to this album is like lying in bed and wondering what kind of person you would have become if a certain relationship or experience had gone a different way. With sparse drums and a somber yet not quite downtrodden tone, Kozelek fills Joey Always Smiled with daydreaming introspection where questions are not explicitly stated but seem to arise on their own.