Album Report: “Passenger Zero” by Zak M.

Zak M. understands things that we don’t. He always seems to be on the vanguard of something, and although it’s often hard to pinpoint exactly what, it’s inspiring to witness. This St Louis based singer songwriter has been diligently releasing material since 2011, subtly amassing a discography of twenty releases including this one. I can’t say I’ve heard every single one, but every one that I did listen to has presented me with a slightly new and different facet of the song of Zak M. If you’ve seen him perform live you probably felt something, and if you haven’t listened to his material now is perhaps the perfect moment (especially considering that all twenty of his Bandcamp downloads are free).

Zak M. has a definite sound and a set of constant characteristics that propel his song forward. Whether he’d be accompanied by his trusty acoustic guitar, the occasional organ or noise electronics, the music is constantly trying to achieve perfect sync with the vocal lines. A guitar part will often just be a single melody line that loosely creates a counterpuntal relationship with the voice, stretching and thinning that relationship as the tune progresses. Every bit of music always feels performed by a supernatural will, like he was writing the song on the spot tethered by a force that we can’t see. His vocals are the obvious protagonist, with a deep, round and crooning vibrato that switches ranges at will to propel narratives that are so abstract and entangled in metaphor that I can’t say I know what a single Zak M. song is about– I don’t think we’re supposed to know. Instead, the images help us continue to be transported and endear us when a line or a word feels close to home.

“Passenger Zero” is the newest release from the songwriter. It was released on February of this year, and like a lot of his projects it centers specifically around the guitar. The sound of his trusty nylon string is gone though, and replaced by what seem to be an american steel string guitar. This might come off as a trivial fact, but the sound of his compositions has changed thanks to a much brighter and inviting tone accompanying vocals that are clear and easy to hear. The sound of this release is exactly as it should be: transparent and simple, but also rugged and organic in nature. This accessibility in sound appears to mirror the songwriting employed here, where the usual endless stream of thoughts and notes from Zak M is constantly being adorned and fortified by relatable chord progressions and riffs. In fact, this might be the most “straightfoward” collection of songs I’ve heard from him in a while, if such a thing is even possible.

The album opens with “The Glove Story”, a touching combination of the accessible and the dense. The guitar is jagged and chopped, staying on perfect par with vocal accents and adding harmonic ideas to every phrase; the effect is however tamed by a gorgeous vocal melody that evokes images of urban settings turned rural and disjointed juxtapositions. It’s a short opener, but it sets the tone effectively by presenting a song that is as complex as it is comforting. Right as it’s over we are shot at with the opening couplet of “I Dis A Vow”, the track that follows: “The urban jungle is a cultural wasteland./Every animal sound is a notification”. Strong words to open a song that is much longer and thicker than the opener. The guitar is now repetitively tag-lined with a small riff that either opens or closes phrases through the harmony provided. The themes appear to be of neighborhood identity and a disdain or a fear for the dollar sign eyes looking to invade. When he sings “Urban renewal is a urinal cake./Here comes the Here Comes The Neighborhood storefront decal” I hear a bite and a subdued anger that subtly stings, especially in how the word “cake” is chomped on.

The contrast between the straightforward and the abstract we’ve been presented with is perhaps at its most apparent on the following couple of songs. “I Focus on the Grain” opens in full-fledged Zak M. style with a single note guitar line following along his jagged vocal melody through confusing note choices that endlessly tense and resolve– lines like “my nonsense language,/ my fluid persona” perhaps denote a self awareness and a desire for change. The second half of the song acts on the implication, switching to an arpeggiated guitar pattern that grounds an emotional and relatable melody reliant on the descending line when singing the word “remembering” and the low guitar tag at the end of verses. The split down the middle shows Zak M. at full synchrony between identities, helping the bizarre justify the familiar.

Probably a partner to the previous song “I Focus on the Pain (Johnny Cash Halloween Mask)” shows us Zak M. at maybe his most straightforward and poignant to date. Otherworldly composition is left behind and replaced with a beautiful American folk chord progression that is performed with astounding attention to detail as it is repeated four times in scarily standard fashion for an artist like him. The progression is subtly embellished with strategic notes placed to imply new chords and possibilities at the end of phrases. It is perhaps the peak of the album, and it carries a flooring emotional weight despite the abstract nature of certain lyrics. Zak’s unusual metaphors are coupled with stimulatingly direct interactions with the second person that range from encouraging (“Put your hands up – up around your heart/ was the answer to the question you forgot”) to accusative and pressuring (“I heard you were measuring on a desk./ You thought some cleanup crew would fix your mess.”). The Johnny Cash reference in the title is completely in place; indeed, this astounding song automatically feels like an old country ballad that makes me wish I had known it my whole life. The song is tail ended by an outro that concentrates the emotional weight of the narrative into an abandonment of self for peace of mind: “Fold along the dotted lines around your eyes./ Your name is not your name”.

“The Nest” abandons the straightforward style of the last song to create an off-putting centerpiece in the track list. The interaction with the second person returns to abstract and confusing territory, with references to a six foot tick, coughing cabbage, a large ant, and parenthetically tacit “you”s. Towards the end of the song Zak M. numbers out five elements in a disruptive and uncomfortable fashion, with abrupt pauses and awkwardly separated words for a chilling and almost tormenting effect. “Nightmare Bug”, an a cappella field recording vignette, follows as a necessary breath of fresh air. Zak’s words are barely discernable and the whistles of the cars and the wind accompanying his singing feel intentional and orchestrated. It’s a change of pace that propels us into the last leg of the album with somewhat of a clean slate.

“The Seventh Temptation” resembles “The Nest” in texture and guitar style, with dark arpeggiating chords changing at will to follow Zak’s lyrics clad in references to mortality through the role of insects and decorative keepsakes. It’s repetitive in composition, but doesn’t stride for automatic pleasure like some other sections in the album do– it also ends as suddenly as it presents itself in the style of the Zak that we’ve known. We go deeper into the abstract composition on “Soft Touch”, the longest track in the album and perhaps the most challenging. At this point the guitar appears completely dependant on the vocal melody, as it meanders into endless territories to adequately accompany a first person narrative that is frighteningly vulnerable for a lyricist like Zak. The encouragement of past lyrics is gone and Zak croons vindictively, speaking of changes in blood pressure caused by interpersonal conflict, inauthentic hopes and dreams, and a reliance on an unknown soft touch to preserve self control. It’s a difficult song that doesn’t do much for the listener, but rather it puts the troubadour’s soul on display for a necessary contrast to the omnipotent and commanding persona presented in earlier numbers.

The album heads out with a light heart through the hypnotizing still life depicted in “Treasures”. Zak’s late brother Noah Marmalefsky wrote the lyrics for this one and they are powerful in their descriptions, spiraling reiterations, and contrast of the mundane and the human. The presence of an old quesadilla on the stove top opens a narrative that juxtaposes creation in writing and destruction in not while life continues to move on. Like with many of the lyrics in this album it’s hard to arrive at a sure interpretation, but the remnants of still and lifeless elements decomposing while humans simply live is vibrant with life and palpable in its personality. The accompaniment is straightforward and repetitive, but lines we’ve heard before appear to land on different chords and passages as they repeat for a disorienting effect that keeps me on my toes as the country guitar bounces gracefully. The album then closes with the true to character small vignette that is “Under My Nails Please”. We are brought back to the stream of consciousness style that we know, and this final reference to the second person travels through a number of confusing elements that paint a grim picture. A final statement of pain closes this journey: “I am the black tooth,/The bruised fruit”. We head out perhaps feeling like we’ve learned more about the elusive songwriter.

Zak M. is an under-appreciated treasure of St Louis music and “Passenger Zero” is a direct challenge to his style, awakening elements of focus and maturity that are cathartic for long time listeners and astoundingly effective in their personality. I had a conversation with him about “I Focus on the Pain”, where I asked him where that grounded folk composition came from. He calmly explained that this is how he used to write songs, and that he went away from it slightly underwhelmed by the imperative voice that resulted in his words– this song was then a mockery of those years and songs with their tedious instructions and commands. I dare to say that rather than a mockery, the return to focused and traditional compositions of his past shows a wanderer who has gained eternal experience and returned home to roost in it and try on his old clothes.

Indeed, Zak’s intentions in these more straightforward passages are contagious, effective and supremely human in ways I don’t think I can understand– a product of a deep exploration into his own creative realms far from human influence and comprehension. The interactions of these sections with the diffuse and abstract persona we’re familiar with then form a fortress that is complex and otherwordly, but also strikingly honest and refreshingly immediate. “Passenger Zero” showcases this relationship in so many different contexts and guises that it’s hard to stop aimlessly thinking about this grandiose display of identity. It’s hard to say, but I think Zak M. is at a new peak and I am thankful we get to see it unfold.

Listen to “Passenger Zero” via Bandcamp down below:

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