From chirpy beginning to gloomy end, the new Sun Kil Moon album portrays a man in love with the concrete noun. Most sad singer-songwriters express themselves in metaphor, obscure blather, feckless musings about metaphysical abstractions; not Mark Kozelek, no sir. He’s all about the quotidian detail, the straightforward confessions, the mundane depictions of daily life. Count the images in “Birds of Flims” alone: horses, lake, trees, sweat, hotel, sun, bed, girl, phone, birds, film, ski town, yard, mountains, road, dandelions, and the song’s not even half over. Read Kozelek’s lyrics on the page, as their narrative convolutions demand, and it feels like you’re violating his privacy, reading his journal.
An indie-rock veteran who used to front the (relatively) louder and more energetic Red House Painters before starting the (relatively) darker and more introspective Sun Kil Moon, Kozelek’s work hasn’t always been so minimal, so unaffected — with Red House Painters, he wrote traditionally structured melodic songs, with choruses, no less. But his recent work all fits a very spare, muted blueprint: over simple, repetitive, faint guitar plucking, he moans/mumbles detailed and somewhat circuitous autobiographical recollections written in what could almost be stark, unaffected prose. Publications from Pitchfork to the Observer have found Sun Kil Moon’s new Universal Themes, out since June, rather disappointing by Kozelek’s standards, but these are the same arbiters of taste who declared 2014’s almost identical Benji a masterpiece. Heard in tandem, not much distinguishes the two records. Both stick to tranquil guitar accompaniment, seldom but occasionally incorporating a drumset or, that rarest of commodities, a bassline. Both foreground Kozelek’s deep, cracked, tuneless vocals, and thus both emphasize words over music. Both are drenched in the existential melancholy of a natural depressive who’s been venting his feelings on record for over twenty years now. Both are slow, glum, tedious, and very hard to sit through.
Without a distinctive instrumental sound, although his mellow guitar arpeggios are sometimes quite pretty, what distinguishes Kozelek’s music is a simultaneously calculated and heartfelt vocal style: speechlike, disconsolate, recognizably blue-collar, he drawls his diary entries in a manful mumble, as if the story’s just falling out of him. Plenty of singer-songwriters fetishize personal reminiscence, but Kozelek takes it to the next level — put the record on, here, he’ll tell you how his day went, remembering every tiny little detail. (Sample lyric, from Universal Themes’s “Garden of Lavender”: “After the show, I left with my agent, Ed, and his wife, and Alessia, and we talked for a bit, and I walked back to the K West with my guitar, and got into my bed, called my girlfriend, and fell asleep…”) His sentences are simple, literal, and usually past-tense; even when he makes some big philosophical statement or starts musing on the transient nature of life, he usually jams such ruminations into otherwise grammatical constructions, so that they interrupt declarative sentences with indicative verbs just as they interrupt the factual narrative. Likewise, even when the images he cites symbolize grander concepts, like Love, or Loss, or All This Useless Beauty, they’re always real concrete items, thus evoking and acknowledging a larger material reality, the depiction of which is Kozelek’s ultimate goal. Close your eyes during one of his rambling sagas and you can easily imagine him going to concerts, taking walks, enjoying nature, talking to friends, visiting his family. Any music richer and more obtrusive than his muffled, delicate guitar strumming would distract from the establishment of Kozelek’s literary world, not to mention eclipse his voice and screw up the projection of his own character. If he played the guitar any louder, we might not get to know Mark Kozelek the manful mumbler, the working-class everyman, the guy with a tough exterior and a big fat soft sensitive heart underneath. We might miss the full weight of his mournful observations about friendship, mortality, and just how hard it really is to be a human being with human emotions on this cold, cruel earth.
Universal Themes contains more music than Benji for sure. On “Ali/Spinks 2” and “With a Sort of Grace I Walked to the Bathroom to Cry” he even pulls out a distorted electric guitar, lending those two numbers an edge his forlorn acoustic can’t muster, and Steve Shelley’s drums kick in with heavier drive. The songs are longer (waaaaaaay longer) and more complicated, often incorporating tempo changes, gradual arrangement shifts, long sections of a cappella reading, and they generally feel an inch closer to full-fledged band performances rather than personal confessions. Nevertheless, these differences are fairly minimal; a dirgelike, sluggish record so quiet you could play it in the background and forget you had music on, so skeletal you can hear vast expanses of sweaty, echoey space in between every brittle guitar string, Universal Themes still moves at a crawl, its only engaging sonic element the solemn, portentous, recitative baritone in the foreground. Lyrically, the two albums share an obsession with death that on Benji inspired Kozelek to write songs about dead friends, family members, the victims of the mass shooting at Newtown, and serial killer Richard Ramirez. Universal Themes also addresses death, but he’s gotten more sentimental about it. On the first song, he finds a dying possum in his backyard, goes to a metal concert, decides he’d like to die at peace beside his girlfriend one day, erroneously rationalizes/justifies the possum’s death in his mind by insisting that the “rodent” [sic] was loved, and wonders if the dying possum heard church bells on Easter Sunday welcoming him to heaven. On the next song, he’s staying in a small Swiss ski town and goes on various walks before returning to his hotel room and falling asleep to the birdsong, at the end watching a boxing match and having one of those bullshit nostalgic epiphanies about the meaning of life (“What is life if not a fight?”). On the next song, hanging out with a terminally ill friend makes him long for the good old days back when we were all little kids not having to worry about anything, so then he takes a walk, observes a run-down neighborhood, and gets emotional about all the terrible beauty in everything no matter how big or small. Kozelek’s stories about specific events ostensibly illuminate experiences and values we all share, things that have happened to everybody, things we all think about. Me, I try to keep my nostalgic epiphanies to a minimum. Nor, were I to have such an epiphany, would I set it to a guitar figure so dry, parched, and austere its very plucking cries out for a drink of water.
As a form/genre, the singer-songwriter mantle implies unmediated personal expression. Behold, just a guy and his guitar, voicing his deepest thoughts and emotions over those three eternal chords. In theory, one gets to know a real human being by listening to a singer-songwriter’s work, an illusion the best singer-songwriters exploit to thrilling effect. Trouble is, the genre often attracts questionable characters — macho blowhards seeking to impose their personality on the listener. Mark Kozelek has a gift for sketching a vivid, detailed physical environment where his songs can take place. His failure lies in the lack of a corresponding musical one.
Sun Kil Moon’s Universal Themes is available from Amazon and other music sellers.