REVIEW – The Weird Evolution of Mark Kozelek

Jesu/Sun Kil Moon Album by Jesu and Sun Kil Moon

by Sam Sodomsky

Up until 2012, the signature song in Mark Kozekek’s catalogue was “Katy Song.” The centerpiece of Red House Painters’ 1993 self-titled album, “Katy Song” put on display nearly everything that people love about the songwriter: the shoegaze dronescape that defined his early work; the folksy melodicism that anticipated his Sun Kil Moon material in the following decade; and the sparse, heartbroken lyrics that permeated it all. “I know tomorrow you will be somewhere in London / Living with someone,” Kozelek sang at the song’s end, “You’ve got some kind of family there to turn to / And that’s more than I could ever give you.” For a long time, it sounded like the barest, most confessional lyric he’d ever write.

Then something changed. Beginning with his 2012 double album Among the Leaves, Kozelek’s work has come quicker and quicker, and his lyrics have gotten dryer and simpler. His recent work, which bears the literalness and directness of a well-kept diary, or a particularly tedious Twitter feed, has ranged from the deeply poignant – see 2014’s critical breakthrough Benji, which focused on his Ohio childhood and the characters who populated it – to the frustratingly banal – see last year’s Universal Themes, which focused almost entirely on his minor work on a film set in Flim, Switzerland.

On releases like the latter, the listener quickly grows bored by Kozelek’s obsession with total recall, in songs that seem more intent on documenting the day’s activities than with entertaining the listener. Unlike that memorable line from “Katy Song,” whose ending arrived like a knockout punch in the twelfth round of a slow, hard-won fight, his current lyrics ring constantly with those strides toward clarity. If he were writing “Katy Song” song today, we’d know immediately what part of London Katy was going to, the name of the uncle she’s staying with, and probably how Kozelek feels about the food out there.

The key moments of modern Kozelek songs, then, are no longer their soothing melodies or their subtle poetic impact, but rather, their smaller, subtler scenes: one key lyric from Universal Themes detailed Kozelek witnessing a groundhog’s death, while another groundhog watches, trembling in the distance. Jesu/Sun Kil Moon, Kozelek’s newest album and his first collaboration with underground metal hero Justin Broaderick, for its benefit, seems more focused on these types of moments than with Kozelek’s daily itineraries. If there’s a running theme throughout the record, it’s a frantic obsession with time running out, and making the most of what we have. Throughout the course of the record, Kozelek attempts to navigate a diverse span of worries – one song grapples with the devastation of bereaved parents, another with the frustration of being bugged by fans for copies of his albums on vinyl (in their defense, keeping up with Kozelek vinyl release has become increasingly frustrating, the more prolific he becomes).

And, because of Kozelek’s plainspoken writing style (sample opening lyric: “It’s June 13th, 2015 and I’m jetlagged as hell / Just walked in the door and opened my mail”) and his conversational drawl, none of his lyrics scan as more intense or emotive than any others. Which is all to say, if you’re not already interest in Kozelek’s worldview, Jesu/Sun Kil Moon’s eighty-minute runtime might feel more like eighty hours. And, even if you are a fan, the album is a hefty undertaking. Luckily, Broaderick’s presence gives the songs a varied array of atmospheres – the lurching power chords of the first few tracks couple nicely with the more laid back, electro-indie twinkle of the album’s second half. Meanwhile, Broaderick’s arrangements often add a cinematic grandiosity to the songs, even when Kozelek is singing about watching Comedy Central’s roast of Charlie Sheen or listening to a waiter describe the different shapes of pasta the restaurant offers.

But, even as distinctive and necessary as Broaderick’s presence is, Jesu/Sun Kil Moon is an album dominated by Mark Kozelek: by his anxieties, his obsessions, his voice. In one sense, he’s at the top of his game. Has he ever written a better hook, for example than, “Today is Father’s Day / I called my dad and he sounded okay”? Is that even a hook? Are these even songs? It’s hard to say. The best parallel I can think of is Lil B, whose constant stream of mixtapes in 2010 resulted equally in moments of utter nonsense and total lucidity. These are artists who seem completely uninterested in appealing to the masses, or even to serving their fanbases. Instead they opt for an artistic ideal: to make music exclusively for themselves, regardless of who is listening. And it’s hard not to admire their energy, even as you’re being dared to walk away.

Indeed, as of late, you are more likely to hear about Kozelek in the news for his antagonistic behavior on stage (bullying younger bands and female journalists with vulgar parody songs, for example) than the quality of his music, but his records somehow makes him seem sympathetic and well-intentioned. Note the inclusion of two long, laudatory fan letters that Kozelek reads, word-for-word, throughout the course of the album. Note also the album’s happy ending epilogue, “Beautiful You,” that makes sure, that, if you do stay on board for the course of the record, Kozelek wants you to leave smiling. In that regard, he has changed very little: like those final lines in “Katy Song,” Jesu/Sun Kil Moon shows once again that Kozelek might not be the family member you turn to for unconditional love and stability, but that doesn’t mean you have to abandon him.

Sam Sodomsky is a writer and musician living in Alphabet City. His writing has appeared on sites including Pitchfork and Decoder Magazine. He is currently an MFA candidate in nonfiction writing at Columbia University.

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