Mark Kozelek


Either in his own name or as Sun Kil Moon, I count that Mark Kozelek has released ten albums since 2015’s Universal Themes, although I’m not here tonight because I have listened to any of them. Before the release of …Themes I wrote a review of the previewed song ‘Ali/Spinks 2’ in which I described it as “unlistenable”, and ultimately the album turned me off Kozelek’s music. Blessed with the warm tones of a crooner, he nevertheless seemed to decide to make his vocals wildly out-of-tune and hoarse on parts of that record, and the diary-style, rambling songwriting, which by all accounts he has continued with since then, just wasn’t my cup of tea.

Discuss Kozelek’s music with a friend and before long the conversation invariably turns to Kozelek himself, such is the self-indulgent nature of his recent material. And detractors have used words like boorish, antagonistic, misogynistic and pugnacious to characterise his behaviour on stage. Polite people describe him as an interesting character.

I attended a Sun Kil Moon show in London the day before Universal Themes was released, and there were plenty of affecting moments, but that gig was also the night of Kozelek’s controversial mocking of journalist Laura Snapes. Almost as offensive was his destruction of his beautiful song ‘Michelene’, which he treated with contempt – he is able to paint vivid pictures with his words and melodies, yet the rendition of the song vocally was Kozelek spitefully spoiling his Sistine Chapel ceiling with spray paint.

I wouldn’t be surprised if his recent work and alienating behaviour are, in part, designed to shed many of the fans he’d gained with Benji and Perils from the Sea in 2013-14. Neil Young described such a move in his own career in the early 1970s as “heading for the ditch” after the success of Harvest. Radiohead did something similar after OK Computer in that some of the motivation for the change in musical direction was to become less popular. The difference with these bands and Kozelek is that I enjoy their ditch albums On the Beach, Tonight’s the Night and Kid A.

Since 2015 Sun Kil Moon hadn’t frequented my music player until May this year, after I caught a Phoebe Bridgers show in Liverpool. Being a huge Kozelek fan, Bridgers covers his tune ‘You Missed My Heart’, and her moving performance of the song was a reminder for me of Kozelek’s talent. It was around this time that I saw tonight’s show at RNCM advertised, so Kozelek was back on my radar to some degree, but my main incentive for being here tonight is the realisation that if I had to pick my ten favourite songs of this decade, Kozelek would probably be responsible for two or three of them.

Joined tonight by Ben Boye on piano/drum machine and Ramon Fermin on classical guitar, Kozelek looks every bit the crooner in a snazzy suit and shiny black shoes. Kozelek is an accomplished guitar player, but his songs these days are so long and word-heavy that it seems sensible for him to be instrument-free and to have his lyrics and notes on a stand in front of him for reference when needed.

Mark Kozelek

The room we’re in, the Concert Hall, is like the fourth member of the band because it feels crucial to the performance. It’s hard to imagine that the material would work half as well were it not for the lush acoustics and dynamics of an auditorium like this, and to my untrained ear Boye and Fermin could easily be from music-school backgrounds. Their playing is full of intricacy, light touches and melody in a classical or jazz style.

I think virtually all the songs being played are either brand-new/unreleased or from this year’s self-titled, double album. The lyrics are sung, half-sung or spoken at various times, and the average song length is probably about 12-15 minutes. The words crammed into these lengthy pieces tend to be a mixture of the mundane (like arranging tours with his agent or who he had dinner with and what they talked about), the comical (such as language barrier issues at a Belgian barbecue) and the touching (an example being a dream in which Elliott Smith was still alive).

What’s most striking about the material is the extent of the insight into Kozelek’s life. It seems unparalleled in pop music, albeit it’s kind of the equivalent of people posting photos of their food online just because they can. Appropriately, and presumably knowingly on Kozelek’s part, one new song is called ‘This Is My Dinner’, which is also the title of the next album.

We learn about Kozelek’s many travels, his love for his girlfriend Caroline, for his cats and for Norway, and his ongoing obsession with boxing. I’m not a boxing guy myself and I doubt anyone could ever persuade me to watch a match, but to be fair to Kozelek, he would probably come as close as anyone because he sings about boxers in such a romantic way that the sport almost becomes appealing. Almost.

I can’t say that the three-hour set has dragged at all. I have been entertained, even if Kozelek remains a warts-and-all experience. The musicians are talented. The sound in the room is perfect. You take the good bits and endure the bad bits. In a line in his brand-new song ‘1983 MTV Era Music is the Soundtrack of Outcasts Being Bullied by Jocks’ Kozelek claims to have always been an outcast and not just since 2014. I suppose he will most likely always be an outcast because he loves it and he needs it too much.

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Steve Jones

Apart from about five years in total, I've always lived in Manchester. Shame about the weather and lack of beach, but I do like it here. My all-time favourite gig would have to be The National at the Academy in about 2010, although I did get Matt Berninger's mic cable wrapped around my neck (that was a close one). My guilty pleasures include the music of Bruce Springsteen, and I also felt a bit bad for feeling such joy at seeing Counting Crows live in the early 2000s. I recommend Lifter Puller, a rather obnoxious and unpleasant-sounding band that I can't seem to get enough of, even though they are long disbanded. Amongst my Silent Radio gigs, I was blown away by John Murry. I'll let you know if anything tops that one.