Sun Kil Moon
Sun Kil Moon
Elisabeth Murdcoh Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre
Thursday 1 June 2017
THE MISERABLE MINIMALIST
Not many people leave a Sun Kil Moon show thankful to have been spared an even more depressing experience. However, when I snuck a look at the football scores just as Mark Kozelek started a long song about the Orlando massacre, not only was my team Hawthorn trailing Port Adelaide by 10 goals, but we hadn’t even kicked a single goal in the entire first half of football. Talk about depressing. From that moment, I was truly in the zone and receptive to Kozelek’s trademark tragic tales of the everyday. ‘Sing to me Mark’ I thought, ‘there’s nothing you can throw at me that could make me feel any worse,’ and then settled back into the Recital Centre’s comfy seat for another hour or so of his morose monologues and morbid music.
Sun Kil Moon is the stage moniker of Mark Kozelek, who is best known for his role in 90s band, Red House Painters – although admittedly they were not a band I was particularly familiar with at the time (and just out of interest, were they red people who painted houses or people who painted houses red?).
He is quite a singular voice in the pop pantheon, or what might loosely be called indie music. His songs are long rambling affairs that run for anywhere up to 12 minutes and generally recount his thoughts and mundane moments from his day to day routine; eating breakfast, talking to his mum on the phone, watching television, running into an old friend, that sort of thing. He sets these tales of personal minutiae against the various miseries that rain down upon humanity and the atrocities that engulf the world. He finds meaning from the resulting confluences, crossovers and conflicts. The personal is the political – you know the sort of thing.
The accompanying music is sparse, often just slow picked guitar, but for this show at the Melbourne Recital Centre he had a band consisting of bass, drums and piano that created a minimalist soundscape over which Kozelek intoned his dire songs of ill-portent.
If I had to pin a label on him, I’d say he is a minimalist miserablist, like Morrissey without the melody. He makes Leonard Cohen sound like a vaudeville act. You’d call hima real a glass half empty kind of guy, only someone has also spat in the glass.
Anyone who knows Kozelek’s reputation (grumpy malcontent) won’t be surprised to learn that he enforces a prohibition on people using mobile phones at his shows, whether to take photos, film or presumably keep track of football scores – hence there are no photos here of the performance.
The photos included here are the publicity shot used to advertise the show (reproduced here entirely without permission – I was too scared to seek it, but figured, it’s the publicity shot and this article is more or less publicity), a photo of the cd cover for his latest album, Common As Light And Love Are Red Valleys of Blood (you get the picture?) alongside his best known album, Benji, and one of the stage just before the band came on – the lighting is muted nearly to the point of darkness and didn’t change significantly when they appeared, so even had I snapped a couple of pics of the band in action, you still would have struggled to make out their shadows in the gloaming.
I was at the show with my friend John who had talked me into going. We had good seats near the front right on the side aisle, perfect for a quick escape, or perhaps a recuperative snifter during the show. Or even counselling. John suggested the show should have come with a warning from Beyond Blue.
Although I quite liked Sun Kil Moon’s Benji album, I went mainly out of morbid curiosity, wondering just how someone puts on a show with this sort of material.
Ahead of the show I listened to the new album, a sprawling two-hour plus odyssey in which Kozelek mumbles his way through monologues that sound more like crazed blog posts than songs, and which document in considerable detail his general dissatisfaction with almost everything. There is humour, although it is invariably of the dark variety, and the overall message in each piece is generally positive, although you only get there via a circuitous detour through the various circles of numerous tiny Hells.
What is interesting about the new album is the musical accompaniment which is denser and more involving than I’d previously heard. Sure, it’s minimalist and there is nothing approaching a melody as such, but there is bass, drums, keyboards, guitar and actual rhythms. It might even be a masterpiece if anyone could get to the end in one sitting. It’s not an easy listen, but it is engaging.
And for all that I may scoff at his perverse pessimism and his sense of self-importance, he offers an entirely unique and interesting approach to contemporary music. If nothing else, that alone is worth celebrating.
It is a difficult show to describe because not much happened, yet it went for more than three hours. Kozelek was as morose as you’d expect, yet he exhibited a genuine sense of humour, brought on special guests and engaged in audience interaction.
The band walked on stage and set up a basic rhythm that didn’t vary greatly for most of the night. Kozelek ambled on after a couple of minutes and began a monologue that seemed to be about playing shows in Amsterdam, Poland and various other cities in Europe and the USA.
Earlier this year Guns N Roses attracted the opprobrium of local music fans when they walked onto the stage at the Melbourne Cricket Ground and bellowed “Helllloooo Sydneeey!” to the audience of 50,000 people. It’s an old joke among Melbourne residents and seen, quite rightly, as a sign that the artist is disengaged and even dismissive of their audience. I mean if you can’t even get the name of the city right, then you’ve got problems, especially when it is embedded into the name of the venue, Melbourne Cricket Ground.
So what to make of Kozelek whose opening number, Bombs, developed into a journal entry of the tour so far, including comments on flights, accommodation, encounters with fans, people he’s met, meals he’s eaten, the gigs he’s played etc, except that he repeatedly referred to Melbourne as Sydney, not just once, but several times. It actually became embarrassing, mainly because it undermined the ‘look, I’m writing a song as I go’ trick that he was trying to pull off. Audience members were looking about at each other wondering if anyone was going to correct him.
People were generally forgiving of the Gunners on the basis of the sheer amount and variety of drugs that Axl and crew must have ingested over their lifetime. I’m not sure whether the same applies to Sun Kil Moon however. Plus, Axl only said it once, whereas Sun Kil Moon kept going on and on about being in Sydney. As with the Gunners, it was especially damning considering that the word Melbourne is in the name of the venue.
It didn’t get things off to a great start, a point he acknowledged when the song finally came to an end and his mistake dawned on him. Although he berated himself, I’m not sure he fully appreciated the gravity of his crime, after all, he had just committed the worst of all possible sins on a Melbourne stage – to be honest, we take kindlier to no-shows and walk-offs than we do to being mistaken for Sydney.
But Kozelek is not one to dwell on his own errors and he moved straight into the next song, a new one he introduced as House Cat. By the time it finished we’d been going for more than 25 minutes and they’d only played two songs.
I Got You Babes
If you’ve heard a Sun Kil Moon album and thought that he sounds like he’s reading aloud rather than singing, it’s probably because he is. For most of the gig Kozelek wandered the stage reading from a sheaf of papers in one hand, while gesticulating with the other, his wrist circling in a gesture that looked like he was conducting himself or indicating to that the band that they need to ‘keep going.’ Nor was he beyond reading form a lectern and following the words with his finger.
In his defence, the songs are bursting with words, hundreds of them, and they tumble out, not so much in a stream of consciousness as a torrent of consciousness. There is no helpful verse chorus verse structure, so it would be impossible to remember the lyrics without figuring somewhere on the autism spectrum.
The opening lines of Micheline received generous applause from an audience perhaps because they were relieved to recognise a song. It was short-lived however, as his next song, Astronomy, was another new one from an EP I didn’t even know.
Special guest saxophonist Donny McCaslin joined the group on stage and improvised during Bergen to Trondheim. McCaslin, who is newly famous in rock circles for his work on Bowie’s Blackstar, was in town for the Melbourne International Jazz Festival.
Kozelek put out a call from the stage for a female guest vocalist from the audience to help him out in a song he described as being about his mother. At first there was no response, but just as Kozelek was looking to move on, there was a disturbance up the back, some murmuring, footsteps, and perhaps a shriek or two followed by the clomp of heavy footfall in the aisle and more raised voices.
Initially hopeful, Kozelek baulked as the woman continued chatting as she came down the aisle. He wondered aloud if she’d partaken of too much hospitality in the bar. As she was ushered backstage by staff, another woman ran down the aisle next to me. She clambered aboard the stage just as the first woman walked in from the wings. Awkward. Now he had two vocalists on stage.
He dismissed the first woman with the excuse that he didn’t think she was right for that song, but promised that he would find another song for her to sing later. It may have seemed cruel to put out the call and then reject her, but in Kozelek’s defence, she did sound like she was half cut.
The second girl, he revealed, was the daughter of someone he knew, and she did an admirable job on I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love, a song that projects forward to a time when his mother has died. That’s the kind of guy he is, even when there is no current cause for sadness, he’ll dredge up some theoretical unpleasantness from the future.
At the end of the song he asked venue staff to print off the lyrics to I Got You Babe for his promised duet.
However familiar you might be with Kozelek’s work, you would probably admit that singing is not necessarily his strong suit. The lyrics are too much like prose to be considered rapping and there is just enough voice modulation to take it beyond spoken word, but his delivery is too lugubrious to be properly considered singing. Yet here he is, travelling the world with a band playing concerts and recording ever more personal and obscure albums. Like Mark E Smith, with whom he shares a similar misanthropic worldview, the more wilfully obtuse and dogmatic he becomes, and the more adamantly he ignores any sort of conventional career progression – the more dedicated his following seems to become. It’s delightfully perverse and perhaps that is part of the attraction.
It’s certainly part of the appeal for me, but then a song like Dogs, seemingly a straight forward song about sexual awakening, is packed with so much detail and moves so effortlessly from the personal to the universal that it’s hard not to admire the song craft. They played it with the sort of gusto and gruff urgency that befits the song.
You have to hand it to the band, because Kozelek doesn’t seem like he’d be the easiest bloke to get along with. By no means does he come across as a maniacal psychopath like Mark E Smith, who punishes any musicians who display flair or prowess, but the music does not venture too far in variation or virtuosity, and the songs go for so long that you fear the musicians will be struck down by RSI.
Between songs, Kozelek fumbled through his papers while he tried to work out which song to do next, and even when he settled on one, the band seemed frightened to start it immediately in case he changed his mind. He berated the band gently for this and mocked Australians in general for our paucity of television channels and our love of Thai restaurants (he obviously isn’t abreast of the profusion of Thai massage parlours that have sprung up in every shopping strip – I have six within walking distance of my house). If the worst thing he can find wrong with Australia is too few TV channels and too many Thai restaurants, then we’re possibly going okay – after all, TV is mostly rubbish, so the less of it the better, and Thai food is delicious, so you can’t have too much of it.
Despite this, he seemed in reasonable humour. And at the heart of most of his songs, there is genuine compassion and kindness for his fellow human beings, for family and friends, for the fans who attend his shows and buy his records, and for those he has encountered along the way. This is never more evident than in his final song, Exodus, which he dedicated to Nick Cave – and is partially concerned with the death of Nick’s son in 2015.
For someone whose vocal range is limited, Kozelek doesn’t shy away from tackling cover versions. For the encore we got three of them, Sweet Melissa, an Allman Brothers song that he performed as a tribute to the recently deceased Greg Allman, Rock n Roll Singer by AC/DC, which was offered as a tribute to Bon Scott, although sung in Kozelek’s inimitable style, I’m not sure Bon would necessarily have seen it as a tribute. Then he invited back to the stage the previously banished audience member to help him sing the long promised duet of Sonny & Cher’s I Got you, Babe.
I’ve never much cared for this song, but it turned out to be the highlight of the show. After Kozelek took the first verse in his gruff, mumbling moan, the woman chimed in for the second and revealed a voice that would be at home on any stage and in any company – I mean the girl could really sing. Kozelek looked at her in shock as her voice died down and she handed the mic bac to Kozelek. Her voice was strong, powerful and tuneful. It was a genuine Susan Boyle moment that elicited loud cheering every time she finished a line. Even Kozelek bowed in reverence at the song’s conclusion.
The show had been going for more than two and a half hours, but Kozelek was still not finished, canvassing the audience for suggestions on one final song. In the end, he ignored all the proffered shouts and went with God Bless Ohio, the opening track off Common as Light and Love…
Kozelek’s idiosyncratic perspective and performance style made this one of the more unusual shows I’ve seen. In that sense it was certainly worth going. To see someone creating music that is so personal and unique is worth applauding. And if nothing else, I was spared the horrors of watching my football team get hammered.
Chili Lemon Peanuts
Bergen to Trondheim
I Can’t live Without My Mother’s Love
Window Sash Weights
Rock and Roll Singer
I Got You Babe
God Bless Ohio