St. George's Church, Brighton, Sat 1st Aug
Tagged by Wikipedia as “indie folk”, Sun Kil Moon first garnered my interest through a live YouTube video of 'Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes'. (Though why I'd take to a song about “getting older stuff” I can't imagine.) And to cut to the chase, I emerged from the gig clutching one of their their CDs. (Their most recent release seemed not to be on sale, but then apparantly I got the very last item of their stock - 'Benji). So this will be yet another time where we see-saw between gig and CD review...
Effectively frontman/ songwriter Mark Kozolek and whoever is playing with him, Sun Kil Moon might fit into the 'illustrated lyrics' form of folk. With Kozolek's unflamboyant voice and sparse instrumentation, the 'words first' combination is at times reminiscent of Leonard Cohen, the strumming flamenco sound of 'Truck Driver' not so far from 'Stranger Song'. And yet despite this, while Cohen's lyrics are full of metaphor and allusion Kozolek's words are direct and unadorned, unphilosophical and sometimes inelegant. They can sound like one-way conversations which merely happen to fall into song form.
This is often reinforced in the words, which recount letters and phone calls, sometimes giving dates or flight times, or in subject matters which stray discursively. It can even become metafictionally self-reflective, the line “I needed one more track to finish up my record” appearing on – yes – the last track of the record. Music itself is often referenced, with characters described by their record collection and tracks called things like 'I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same'.
Except, and you may well be ahead of me here, the apparent casualness often masks a sharp precision. It can seem so immediate, so unmediated that surely anyone could get up and do it. Yet at the same time Kozolek clearly knows what he's up to. For example on 'Micheline' when he sings...
“Her brain worked a little slower than the others
And she wore thick-rimmed glasses
She took a different bus to school
And was in differnet kind of classes”
...it evokes the vague, slightly euphemistic way those with learning difficulties were spoken of in his (and for that matter, my) youth. They were intended to be met by a knowing silence, or a quick shift onto another subject. Perhaps peculiarly, its often the sheer simplicity of the phrases which make them so readily memorable. They've certainly continued to ring round in my head.
And in fact the collective hive mind states that Kozolek, who's now been making music for nigh-on a quarter century, once wrote in a more flowery style, but has in his more mature years pruned his garden back. Which kind of makes sense. Writing so directly is like taking to the high wire without a safety net, something only the most accomplished can manage. (Certainly its as a writer that Kozolek excels. A cover of 'Send in the Clowns' is a rare miss-step in the gig.)
And the music matches this. Though it's simple enough for him to repeatedly tease his band about the low number of chords in each track, its simplicity is simultaneously deceptive. It doesn't do much, it does the right thing. The pace of tracks is normally sedate, if not quite funereal then funereal's slightly sprightlier brother. Though as they proceed they can boil up to an intensity. But – and you're probably ahead of me here as well – its putting the words and music together which makes the songs potent, the laconic descriptions vieing with the catchy melodies.
Of course a common weakness of folk songwriting is pat philosophising. But, when composed this way, songs raise questions only to pass them onto us. 'Jim Wise' is no call-to-arms protest song, just the flat assertion that a harmless old guy “will be headed to Mansfield prison by the end of the year for sure”. But the haunting harmonies and melodies reframe things, to the point where the cold hard fact doesn't just settle in our minds.
When on 'Carissa', singing of a tragic accident that took his cousin's life, he comments all he can do is to write a song “to make some sense of this/ To find a deeper meaning in this senseless tragedy”. Yet its built into the very same song that this just can't be done. He sings “you don't just raise two kids, take out your trash and die”, describing exactly what has happened. As he's commented “I don’t know what the meaning is but I’m compelled to write about these people, to pay tribute to them.” While he chats to the audience between numbers, when singing he's often not even facing us, as if in a reverie.
Perhaps the biggest clue to Kozolek's songwriting comes at the end of the main set when he fell into a spoken word section looking back over the tour, reflectively crossing cities but returning to his waking up in a Brighton hotel that morning and hearing the seagulls. Its not like there's some epiphany that he had back in the hotel room which he's now using the medium of song to extract and translate to us, it's the experience of hearing the segulls itself he's evoking. As Kozolek himself has said: “Place is important. What I’m surrounded by is a good place to start in any song.”
Except the songs are as often about people as places. With the high number of songs set back in his native Ohio, people and place often overlap – each needing mapping as much as the other. There's only three songs on 'Benji' not named after people and only one, 'Pray For Newtown', which isn't about a person or string of people he personally knows. (And even that, in his own words, is about “women and children and moms and dads and brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts”.) And a whole lot of those people are dead or close to dying. Reviewing 'Benji' for the Guardian, Kitty Empire pointed out its “high body count”. The uncle merely being sent to jail could even be one of the lucky ones.
As part of Kozolek's discursive style there's a jumbled quality, as if he's simply recounting things as they occur to him. Album opener 'Carissa' comments how her death cruelly echoes an earlier fatal family accident, but that doesn't get it's own track ('Truck Driver') until later. A similar non-linearity occurs within songs, with couplets like “at 55 Richard Ramirez died/ But in '83 he was very much alive”. This maintains the free-flowing semi stream-of-consciousness style of the writing. But, as ever, there's a function behind the form. It's just that we're primed to seeing a purpose behind time juxtapositions when Vonnegut formalises them into a science fiction novel, but less so when Kozolek puts them in a folk song.
Ramirez was the Night Stalker serial killer, referred to here by his demythologising real name like Lennon calling Dylan “Zimmerman” on 'God'. News items about his spree once spiked Kozolek's childhood fears. Yet his death just marks the passing of one conception of death for another. As a child you fear death as some bogyeman coming through your bedroom window at night, complete with Scooby Doo mask and catchy name. But the death you see as an adult comes like the night itself; you watch the shadows growing longer, knowing nothing's going to be rolling them back.
Except, and you may also be ahead of me here, there's a fair amount of humour amid all the melancholy. A couple of tracks are positively jaunty – the goofily cheery 'I Love My Dad' is part-way to Jonathan Richman, while the almost Euro-poppy album closer 'Ben's My Friend' recounts a “meltdown passed”, a personal crisis from the perspective of it being over. (It is I think about being able to recall the events and even the triggers of the crisis, but not think yourself back into the feeling of it once its left you.) There's humour along the way, some of it self-depreciating,he exults in recounting how he was told by a friend "who do you think you are, Mick fucking Jagger?"
Live the butter-side-up chiefly came up in the encore, which he devoted to audience requests. Forgetting the lyrics to a song half-way through, he persuaded an audience member to get them up on his smartphone and hold it for him as he sang. Their rapport established, he them got the same guy to duet with him on 'I Got You Babe'. (In these days of the instant record it's been YouTubed. Though presumably on someone else's smartphone.)
Overall, its an experience well suited to the low-key setting of St George's Church, with no stage set whatsoever. And while Rozolek complained (I think ironically) about the minimal lighting, which definitely put the moon in the band name, it added to the ambience. However, tracks that are quite distinct on record end up vaguely similar live. (Presumably through all having to share the same instrumentation.) Combined with this, at two-and-a-half hours the gig was maybe a shade too long. (And yes, I am an awkward bugger who normally complains that gigs are too short!)
At one point Kozolek insists “I'm telling the truth and if you don't believe it...”, before referencing a book we can check out. We're used to authenticity only being confused with aesthetics, that when people ask whether Lou Reed wrote 'Heroin' autobiographically they're really missing the point. But here there's an inescapable sense that his songs need to be based in truth for them to work. (“Based in truth” of course doesn't mean exactitude; when I read he'd changed the girl's names in his history of adolescent fumblings on 'Dogs' I was relieved more than anything else.)
A gig which feels unmediated and uncensored feels fresh and arresting. As Kitty Empire has said “Kozelek... has nothing left to hide, or lose: the effect is utterly riveting.” And while the personal nature of the songs enchances them it reacts with their free flowning form and can at times veer towards that dread folk songwriter word 'confessional' – something which often stands for sheer exhibitionism. Not pausing to put his mouth into gear led to this infamous incident, a sorry tale which doesn't do Kozelek any favours.
Perhaps the overall question is when does a song tip over and lose any connection to the general, when past traumas become prize possessions, for parading not for sharing. After all, if the listener can't relate there's not much point in the audience being there. This Pitchfork review suggests some of his previous writing fell the wrong side of this line, but he's since hauled himself over. Notably, the not-on-sale new album is called 'Universal Themes'.
'Truck Driver' live from Paris last year...
...and that live video of 'Richard Ramirez' I first watched...