Soundcheck: Mk.gee Captures the Sound of Longing

For the latest Soundcheck column, Donna-Claire dives into Mk.gee setting out to reclaim guitar music on his debut album, exploring heartbreak and longing through his intimate songwriting.
By    February 26, 2024

Album Cover via Mk.gee/Instagram

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All Donna-Claire does is write books and play board games with her wife.

There is a word in Russian, toska, that has no English equivalent. It’s a particular type of soul-crushing sorrow that blankets you without warning. Sometimes, I feel it with my every breath. I hear it in songs, but never have I heard toska consume an album the way it swallows New Jersey musician Mike “Mk.gee” Gordon’s debut album, Two Star & The Dream Police.

Gordon began his career running away from the malaise. He moved from New Jersey to California to attend USC’s Thornton School of Music. He stumbled into singing out of necessity: playing in bands at school felt creatively limiting so he started singing to fill in the gaps of his dormroom demos. His guitar was a constant companion, a dream, even when he was taking piano lessons as a kid from a classical Russian teacher. He cites Hendrix, Prince, Perfume Genius, and blues guitarist Taj Mahal as major influences. But Two Star feels brand new. His compositions sound like sketches falling out of time. His guitar playing breaks open the core of the melodies with a discordant surprise. The result is a supernatural heartbreak record that rewards the listener for going deeper.

Whereas many popular indie guitar-centric albums sound precious, Mk.gee’s approach is more physically demanding. In Two Star, you hear the years of daily creative deconstruction. Gordon eschews delicacy in favor of harsh lines and hard stops. These jagged edges lay the groundwork for toska.

I first notice it on the aching “Alesis,” when Gordon sings, “I’m in another body / Who’s in somebody else / While you’re turning over the whole apartment / Looking for something else.” The brand of peel-apart longing, where you’re not sure you’ve ever even lived or been in your body is toska. But it’s the chorus, where he asks, “Don’t you wanna get a move on?” that convinces me in another life Mk.gee was strumming his guitar on a stoop propped up by chicken legs–a Russian witch’s hut.

This is the essence of toska, the worry you’re trapped in the intangibles of the past. The question is so pointed, as if there’s an easy choice to be made. It’s tucked nine songs into Two Star, and I run the album back once it ends, just to hear it again. It’s a thrust forward into the muddy sensation of memory and yearning.

Prior to this, Mk.gee was an architect on singer-songwriter Dijon’s breakthrough Absolutely EP from 2021. In the live video for the EP, there are a handful of moments where Gordon and Dijon make frenzied eye contact and run around set banging on walls, swinging around guitars, and playing spirited piano lines. Those childlike displays of eagerness, the stream of energy funneling out of Gordon as played through Absolutely was my first real introduction to his wandering energy.

There was a string of EPs from 2018 to 2020, but they struggled to capture his personality in full. They were efforts, enticing off potential alone. But watching him embrace the chaos of collaboration with Dijon, surrounded by empty Modelo bottles, his loose and playful nature comes into view. For as self-serious as his debut album sounds, Mk.gee has it in him to have fun.

In an early interview, Mk.gee explained he hates the acoustic guitar because people have co-opted it for cheap looks–and Mk.gee is using jangling electric accents to reclaim guitar music from the claws of “douche culture.” On Two Star, conversations are started by Gordon’s voice, and massaged out by his athletic playing. The writing on the album–what really enchants me–is slight. The images are brief glimpses into longing. Looking up, looking out a car window, looking beyond the disappearing horizon line–we are gazing and wondering all of the time. Toska.

After my fourth listen of Two Star, I flip through a little pocket-sized book I keep on my writing desk to get my bearings. It’s called To Photograph is to Learn How to Die. On page 36, author Tim Carpenter writes: “the photograph is persuasive because it is constructed of the same stuff as everyday experience.” The book begins with a Sufjan Stevens quote. You all know where I’m going with this: Two Star & The Dream Police is the memory and the sorrow of the memory’s past because it’s “constructed” by both. And, because it’s playing into something even more simple: when we hear the trembling of someone being stamped out like a forgotten cigarette, we sigh in relief. Heartbreak rests in all of us, which is toska all the same.

Though Two Star is less wanton, the album is no less evocative. Themes unfold in hushed breaths. The dramatic heart of Two Star arrives on “I Want,” right after Mk.gee’s voice barely breaks through on the verses. When he howls “I want, yes I want,” everything clicks. It personifies desperation. The final word on the song is “desire.” It refers to a nameless subject–the object of the feeling–but also to Gordon’s own failings. “I Want” fades for 20 remorseful seconds, and then the production dampens out, as if to ask: Will it ever get better?

Toska, too, is something of a question. It is the wordless sensation of being neither present nor future, nor anything, but alive nonetheless. When you translate Russian into English, the language expands. You need five times as many English words for one Russian feeling. It’s why our novels end with protagonists dying for ten pages in snowy forests. It’s why we’re nine hundred words into the essay, and I can’t tell you for certain how Mk.gee turned an untranslatable word woven deep into my cultural DNA into 30 minutes of the best guitar music I’ve heard in years. It just happened that way, and it doesn’t matter what language you speak.

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