Those familiar with Sun Kil Moon and/or the Album Leaf could be forgiven for approaching the first official collaboration between Mark Kozelek and Jimmy LaValle, with a certain amount of knowing expectation. The coupling of Kozelek’s world-weary musings and LaValle’s moody electronica seems such a natural fit on paper it’s a wonder it hasn’t happened before. Kozelek is a notoriously prickly figure, his misery so heightened it occasionally reaches parody. LaValle is less obviously troubled, though throwing both together seems unlikely to elicit life-affirming anthems. And yet, Perils from the Sea, for all its patient melancholy and pained confessions, is largely a beautiful experience.
‘What Happened to My Brother’, the track that birthed this project, kicks things off. LaValle’s minimalist take – soft synths, basic drum machines, quiet backing vocals – allows Kozelek to breathe as he carefully delivers the first of many stories of damaged men and fully-formed traumas. For Kozelek in particular, this is hardly new ground, but the results are hugely affecting and often quite devastating. Death, drugs, nightmares, broken relationships and old ghosts cast long shadows from start to finish, but this isn’t a maudlin exercise, rather a record of reflection to get lost in beneath summer stars.
At times, under no apparent pressure, Kozelek’s voice seems to falter and crack a little. These tiny imperfections feel deliberate yet uncontrived, selling the songs better than a stronger singer or more polished production could hope to. Kozelek might be somewhat antagonistic, but his dulcet tones are a perfect marriage for this material. ‘Baby in Death Can I Rest Next to Your Grave’ is especially stirring, loaded with redundant anger as Kozelek lists off the cities he’s sick of seeing for mere hours at a time. He craves respite but surrenders to the rigours of touring. No victory in sight, he’s nevertheless defiant. As LaValle switches from a hazy, dream-like state to marching drums, Kozelek hits his own stride, scoffing at fleeting glimpses while simultaneously cursing missed opportunities. The rueful climax catches him dealing with his own mortality, questioning the supposed poetry of our eventual exit.
It’s a measure of his skill as a raconteur that he can turn full-on introvert so often and not lose the listener. Not even when ‘Ceiling Gazing’ immediately picks up a very similar thread, Kozelek once again running the rule over his life, this time straining to find motivation, moving further away as LaValle’s drone-like arrangement swallows him. The hotel room-as-prison motif returns later as Kozelek fights off yet more demons on the contemplative ‘By the Time that I Awoke’.
The pair may reside in a most uncomfortable comfort zone for much of Perils from the Sea, but there are notable digressions, some more effective than others. ‘You Missed My Heart’ first emerged last year as an unreleased SKM original. An exceptionally dark track even by Kozelek’s standards (the narrative finds him brutally murdering his ex-partner and her lover before dying in prison), it was still deceptively cute, the kind of thing that can sail pleasantly by if you’re not paying attention to the lyrics. In this early guise, the starkness of Kozelek’s mournful vocals and lone acoustic guitar lent the song a heavy grace. The Perils from the Sea version is almost bizarre by comparison. Driven by upbeat synths and an almost-cheerful delivery, the song is robbed of its character and moulded into a head-bobbing sing-a-long. Divorced from the original, it’s still effective, the mix of light and pitch-black still clever, but the tone is misplaced.
The jaunty ‘Caroline’ works better, bedding simple programmed beats with warm guitars as Kozelek finally allows himself to drift away to happy – albeit bittersweet – memories. Despite the constant gloom, it feels much too straightforward to simply dismiss him as mere curmudgeon. ‘Caroline’ concludes with thoughts of the future, Kozelek hopeful that he’ll get the chance to tread familiar footpaths “maybe with a friend, maybe with my love, maybe alone”. Traces of light are found in even his darkest of tunnels. He places focus on issues we might feel safer burying, tackling them head-on with heart, however bruised it may be.