Donny McCaslin Subverts Expectations on New Track “The Opener ft. Sun Kil Moon”
Donny McCaslin is a saxophone player who has been creating jazz albums since the late 1990s. McCaslin played saxophone on David Bowie’s final album Blackstar. “The Opener” is one of the singles from his latest album, Blow, and it features an unusual fusion of genres as well as artists. It features Mark Kozelek, of Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon, rapping a story about a bizarre series of events that happened after one of his performances.
The video for the single is shot with the late ’80s/early ‘90s VHS-thetic that is commonly seen among indie artists nowadays, specifically the SoundCloud rapper types. The style of the video matches the mood of the song: playful and funny, but venturing into the edge of the uncanny valley leaving you a little disturbed. It’s a little reminiscent of the songs you’d see on Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! The aesthetic also fits because the story of the song takes place in the early 1990s.
The song seems to be a joke at first listen. Mark Kozelek “rapping” seems like a recipe for a novelty track that only a minority of indie kids would find amusing. The campy hip-hop style beat with Mark Kozelek’s trademark late-career monotone vocal delivery and stream-of-consciousness lyrics makes for an odd combination. “Recount what happened to you today while interjecting intrusive middle-age-man thoughts.” Not to mention, there is comedic value in the fact that a collaboration between two respected 50+-year-old artists with careers spanning multiple, one a jazz musician and another a slowcore and folk musician, end up with a rap song with a beat that sounds like something a paranoid Jinsang would come up with. However, those elements combine to make an enjoyable song whose appeal goes beyond the novelty of hearing Mark Kozelek rap.
The music itself has a floaty lo-fi hip-hop sound, complete with ringing piano loops and drum breaks. McCaslin’s saxophone creeps in and out throughout the track, giving the track a contemplative, semi-melancholic feel with an edge of paranoia and distress. It’s as if the beat is beckoning you to fall asleep while urging you to keep one eye open at the same time. The sax parts are what elevate the beat from a laid-back study beat to an eerie reflection on an odd night.
The source of the bizarreness of this track lies in the inclusion of Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek. The beat and sax playing create an uneasy atmosphere, but it’s Kozelek’s delivery and lyrics that drive the track into uneasy territory. Anybody familiar with Sun Kil Moon (specifically their 2014 album Benji) will recognize that Kozelek isn’t doing anything different from what he does on his Sun Kil Moon records, for example, “Ben’s My Friend” off of Benji. Kozelek could have put his vocals on this track over any of his folk songs and it would sound like any other Sun Kil Moon song.
The lyrics, like a lot of Kozelek’s lyrics, don’t seem primed for analysis, but it welcomes and rewards it. It’s a straightforward retelling of a real experience Kozelek had in Tampa while on tour in 1992. Kozelek steps off the plane and rides to a motel with a promoter and a random fan who is “along for the ride”. Seeking to avoid conversation with the two, Kozelek reads a boxing magazine. Kozelek offers old recluse wisdom: “If you appear to be immersed in something people will leave you alone if they know nothing about the publication you appear to be immersed in reading”, he sings. Not exactly the insight offered by Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, but a solid piece of advice nonetheless. Kozelek goes on about how he ditched dinner with the promoter and fan to watch a Manfredy fight.
The lyrics continue with wandering thoughts: Kozelek wonders why the bar doesn’t have a P.A. system, what type of beer Floridians would drink, why the fan from the car ride is lingering. Then Kozelek meets the opener (whom this song is titled after): “A thin guy who resembled a young Peter Murphy”. Kozelek notices the opener’s smug aura and unwillingness to talk. Kozelek doesn’t bother to watch the opener perform. Kozelek says the show that night was awful, comparing it to “awkward sex when you’re having trouble keeping it up” (Kozelek showing his age here)
Despite the show’s quality, Kozelek goes back to his motel with two women. One of them reveals that the opener doesn’t like Kozelek. They get back to the motel. Before they can have awkward sex someone knocks on the door. When Kozelek asks who’s there, they answer “The cops”. It’s not the cops. It’s “four big rednecks with cat hats”, who turn out to be the women’s boyfriends and a couple of friends. Instead of a brawl breaking out, Kozelek and the rednecks talk about how the rednecks got the address. As it turns out, the fan from the car ride with the promoter gave it to them. The rednecks and women laughed, drank beer, and then left. Thus ends the song.
So what can be drawn from this? The song has themes of one’s self-image contrasted against others’ interpretation, boredom, and hostility and its consequences. Kozelek brushes off the fan, and the opener brushes off Kozelek. Kozelek doesn’t seem to think too highly of the fan, hence why he ditches his invitation to dinner and is annoyed that he lingers around at the soundcheck. The fan is enthusiastic to be around Kozelek, just as Kozelek “greeted (the opener) warmly”.
Kozelek wonders why the opener doesn’t seem to think too highly of him, and the fan likely thinks the same way about Kozelek’s attitude. Kozelek doesn’t watch the opener’s act, presumably because of the opener’s smug attitude. The fan tells the rednecks where Kozelek was staying, presumably because the fan felt that Kozelek was smug (reading a boxing magazine instead of talking, declining a dinner). Kozelek isn’t smug, he’s just withdrawn and shy. The opener may be the same way, but Kozelek saw him as smug. Both the opener and Kozelek are shafted because of their unwillingness to be open to others, and they see the results, the opener is ignored, Kozelek is cockblocked.
The song is great if the listener is able to look past, or just embrace, the inherent bizarreness of the song. At first, the music seems like a simple beat, but the clever loops and inclusion of the sax makes it memorable. The lyrics seem simple and shallow, but there’s something deeper being said beyond just a 50-year-old guy telling an old story. This song is not the expected result of the two artists’ collaboration, but it is able to subvert expectations while staying true to both artists’ sensibilities. Overall, a good song that rewards multiple listens.