Audience members ambled to their seats and chattered happily beneath the art deco ceiling of the near sold-out Thornbury Theatre ballroom (19 May), eagerly awaiting the enigmatic Mark Kozelek.
The show was set to start at 8pm, but it was twenty minutes later that an MC welcomed Kozelek and company to the stage and asked the crowd not to take photos or video at the request of the artist.
Accompanied by Dirty Three drummer Jim White and keyboardist Ben Boye, the singer took his position behind the microphone and counted the band in to a rendition of ‘Ceiling Gazing’. Kozelek conducted the musicians by rhythmically waving his arm back and forth as he sang the lilting melody, eyes half-shut and swaying.
It came as a slight shock when the song ended and Kozelek started riffing about Australia’s political situation, remarking that the name ‘Scott Morrison’ sounds less like a politician and more like the type of guy in high school that would pick on him.
Kozelek appeared entirely at home onstage, even boisterous, as the crowd chuckled at his jokes, a stark contrast to the introspective opening track.
The next song, ‘Daffodils’, was lifted from Kozelek’s experimental collaboration with Parquet Courts bassist Sean Yeaton. Dissonant and ambient, the 12-minute-long track featured rambling stream-of-consciousness lyrics punctuated by commanding staccato vocals.
Jim White effortlessly kept time behind the kit amid the abrupt changes, watching Boye like a hawk as the keyboardist transitioned from explosive avant-garde stabs to pensive melodies.
It was the third track that illuminated Kozelek’s polarising effect on the audience. ‘Bay Of Kotor’ is a sprawling, 23-minute-long piece documenting the singer-songwriter’s 2016 trip to Montenegro, detailing everything from his encounters with stray animals (complete with his interpretation of the frenetic mewling of a kitten) to the minutiae of his morning routine.
As the last note of the song sounded, several audience members decided to depart quietly. Kozelek was quick to note this and addressed a person heading to the back of the auditorium, who called out that he was only going to the bathroom.
However, Kozelek misheard and thought the crowd member said “awkward”, to which he mockingly told the punter to “go home and listen to A f…ing Flock Of Seagulls”, mistaking the band for Australia’s Men At Work. Although Kozelek ended up apologising for shouting at the punter, blaming his “sensitivity”, the sudden flash of ego left a bad taste in my mouth.
The show pressed on with ‘666 Post’. With its minimalistic instrumentation, the song’s focus was on Kozelek’s dynamic vocal performance including the repeated squawking of: “My kitty cat barks, my duck goes quack and my puppy dog goes meow.”
Kozelek’s ability to deliver such farcical lines with his quintessential sad drawl and straight face is quite remarkable, and added a welcome touch of comedy to the show.
Yet another sprawling saga came when Kozelek debuted a song titled ‘Spanish Hotels Are Echoey’ from his upcoming album, 'Joey Always Smiled' with Petra Haden. A retelling of his memories at BIME Live festival in Spain last year, Kozelek fondly recounted a conversation with Stephen Malkmus in spoken-word form amid anecdotes about Kurt Vile and José González.
In a bizarre turn of events, Kozelek asked for a volunteer from the crowd to join him in a duet of ‘I Got You Babe’ by Sonny and Cher. Wearing a Carcass shirt, a young punter (soon identified as Jono Colliver from Melbourne’s own Simpsons-themed doom metal band, Dr. Colossus) made his way onstage from the very back of the auditorium and stood in absurd contrast to Kozelek’s three-piece suit and slicked-back hair.
But, launching into Cher’s part an octave above Kozelek’s crooning Sonny, Colliver nearly outshined the main act when he effortlessly hit a perfect harmony in the chorus.
The performance was undoubtedly the highlight of the set, although Kozelek perhaps seemed threatened by Colliver’s rapport with the crowd – he dominated the microphone in the last verse – and followed with some unnecessary digs at Colliver’s appearance.
Two and a half hours in, the show started wrapping up with ‘I’m Not Laughing At You’ (a verbose defence of being American) and ‘My Love For You Is Undying’.
The trio’s closing song, ‘This Is My Dinner’, was the final rambling travelogue of the night. Hyper-specific and meandering, the song failed to connect with the audience, most of whom were sleepily glazed over, including poor White behind the kit.
The three-hour performance was surreal and trying, making it easy to see why Kozelek’s newer material is so divisive. The man is undeniably an incredible vocalist and performer, and his comic delivery is better than some people who pursue stand-up as a profession.
However, Kozelek’s newer material resembles the famed approach Kerouac took in writing ‘On The Road’ – except even Kerouac had an editor.
Ultimately, it’s Kozelek’s ever-present egotism that left the biggest impression as I exited the theatre.
One thing I can safely say, however, is that I’ve truly never seen anything like it before.