The Soliloquies He Sings
Mark Kozelek muttered and mumbled about how bright it was in St. George’s Church, looking out at five hundred fully visible faces. The sun had not yet set and soft evening light poured in through the round-headed windows suffusing the church with feathery shadows and illuminating the audience.
When Kozelek asked us how we were doing, our response was silence, closely followed by a breath of shy laughter. Without the cover of darkness, we were unsettlingly self-conscious.
‘Fuck, now you know how I feel,’ said Kozelek.
The laughter grew confident. After that, we all felt a little more at ease.
He sat himself down at the church organ and began playing a droning three-note bass line, and just like that the gig kicked off with ‘Hey You Bastards I’m Still Here’.
The intimate and informal atmosphere continued throughout the concert. Between songs, he spoke to the audience, offering unscripted observations full of understated wit and self-depreciating comments about his own weight and age. Underneath it all was a melancholy tiredness that mirrored his music and lyrics, particularly those on his most recent albums, Benji and Universal Themes.
Kozelek’s musical career has been one of constant growth and movement ever since his slowcore band Red House Painters were signed to 4AD in 1992, through his solo experimentation with genres, sounds and styles – both under his Sun Kil Moon moniker and as Mark Kozelek – and collaborative efforts, most notably the electro-melancholic Perils from the Sea with Jimmy LaValle of the band The Album Leaf.
His lyrical style has changed over the years as well, from the poetic and metaphorical lyrics of his early work towards the gracefully frank soliloquies he sings on Benji. It is as though the youthful romanticism of his earlier song-writing has grown into something else: something older and wiser but no less beautiful. With a keen eye for detail, he finds beauty and meaning in the mundane and everyday. His lyrics unrestrainedly recount his thoughts and feelings, and this is precisely how he performs, both during and between songs. Always moving forward, Kozelek is developing his confessionalism further and beginning to experiment with spoken-word poetry, and he brought this new style to old songs that night in St. George’s Church.
Despite the development and variation in Sun Kil Moon material, Kozelek and the band managed to pull together a set from across previous LPs, along with a handful of covers, and play them as if they were all from the same album, forming one contingent whole, punctuated by the off-beat, strangely-paced spoken-word techniques and occasional punk shouts that characterise Sun Kil Moon’s most recent album, Universal Themes. At times, it was as though Kozelek was covering himself – the songs were so different from the studio versions. Instrumentally minimalist, softer and slower and sombre. Six string bass, guitar and gently-brushed drums set the background while tinkling piano lines complimented Kozelek’s Midwest American drawl.
It was a performance full of variation and improvisation, something separate from the recorded albums, just as live music should be. The downside was that he rarely picked up his guitar and chose rather to wander the stage or sit down behind the organ. When he did play guitar, as he did for ‘I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same’, which for me was the best song in the set, his playing was impeccable. I closed my eyes and rocked back and forth, drowning in that dreamy guitar.
After the fourth song of the set, he requested a moment of silence for Arthur Cave, the son of singer Nick Cave, who fell to his death from a cliff here in Brighton, aged fifteen, less than three weeks before. The sun had set by this point and the church was dark and the band and crowd all bowed their heads in the dusty silence as if each of us was deep in prayer.
‘This next song is dedicated to Nick Cave, in memory of his son,’ said Kozelek. They played a cover of ‘The Weeping Song’ by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and Kozelek displayed the mastery of his voice, which cracked and faltered and moaned, haunting and elegiac, in what has to be one of my favourite covers of all time.
Since then, a new Sun Kil Moon album has been announced: a collaboration with the experimental post-metal band Jesu, simply titled Jesu / Sun Kil Moon. The album is set for release on Caldo Verde Records, Kozelek’s own label, and Rough Trade on the 21st of January this year.
It seems that the Nick Cave cover was a prelude to ‘Exodus’, the first single from the new album, which is available to listen to online. In the track he speaks of Cave and his son and sends his love to all parents who have gone through the unimaginable pain of losing a child. The instrumentation sounds like that of Perils from the Sea. For most of the ten-minute track there is only a gentle electro drum loop and a simple piano line that floats in dark reverb. Kozelek’s loosely melodious monologue is another step towards spoken-word poetry: a simple, straight-forward stream of consciousness, listing events, thoughts and feelings with little rhyme. Towards the end, a vocal chorus comes in, against which Kozelek sings slightly out of sync, reminiscent of the songs of Nick Cave to whom he is paying tribute.
Mark Kozelek is moving ever further from the old poetic lyricism of albums such as April, my personal favourite Sun Kil Moon LP, towards long spoken-word performance pieces. From the sound of ‘Exodus’, Jesu / Sun Kil Moon certainly won’t be as listenable as his earlier work, and won’t get near as many plays on my mp3 player, but I will be getting tickets to see him when he comes to London this summer. He is a performance artist, and the pleasure of his new music comes from the sense of in-the-moment open honesty, a feeling as though you’re getting a glimpse into his mind, that can only be fully experienced when he is there in front of you, muttering and mumbling and wandering the stage, pouring his thoughts out into the microphone.