Someone should send Paul McCartney a copy of Sun Kil Moon’s latest release — a blistering, yet thoughtful collaboration with Jesu (better known as Justin Broadrick, co-founder of industrial metal outfit Godflesh) — to prove that people still haven’t had enough of silly love songs. It’s gotten to the point that even Mark Kozelek seems like a romantic.
No, really. The opener to Broadrick and Kozelek’s collaborative album, “Good Morning My Love”, revolves around the meaning of “rekindle,” and might be his most sincere acknowledgment of love’s restorative powers. Rekindle isn’t a flashy word; it wouldn’t necessarily make a girl’s heart pitter-patter, but the hope contained within those three syllables could save a life. The question is posed so often that it becomes a makeshift chorus: “What does rekindle mean?” Kozelek rarely spells anything out directly. Instead he connects the disparate dots between beleaguered boxer Prince Naseem (whose flair for the dramatic in and out of the ring squandered his potential and led to a prison sentence) and Road to Las Vegas (a 2010 documentary following a struggling family through the country’s economic downturn) to chip away at the answer. Jesu’s serrated guitar masks the intimacy, but ups the urgency in Kozelek’s prodding. Finally, he erupts, all brash and brutal, to focus on a serene image “of men and women that live and talk together in harmony.”
That said, using the word romantic in describing Kozelek might seem like an outrageous claim based on all the negative Internet traffic garnered by the prolific 48-year-old former frontman of Red House Painters. In the last two years, among other events, he started and fueled a feud with Philly rock band The War on Drugs, complete with a diss track titled “War on Drugs: Suck My Cock”; berated a noisy North Carolina crowd at the Hopscotch Music Festival, calling them “fucking hillbillies”; and egregiously called out a prominent female journalist by name at a show in London and proceeded to improvise a little ditty about how she should “get in line, bitch” to fuck him.
That incident generated a bevy of responses, including an enraged account from the writer in question and a superb feminist think-piece from Consequence of Sound associate editor Sasha Geffen. These essays generally fell into two camps: the “I refuse to let the man’s personality flaws get in the way of his music” and the “I’m unequivocally done with this misogynist.” Both are valid arguments, but the latter will sadly miss out on the often beautiful Jesu/Sun Kil Moon.
In an interview accompanying the album’s surprise early release, Kozelek tells actor Rainn Wilson he’s “glad [he] made it to 48,” because every day he gets to wake up next to someone he loves. “I love her, and I love making music. And that’s a lot of love.” That passion pours out over the album’s 10 tracks.
His amorous love for longtime girlfriend and muse Caroline is on full display in “A Song of Shadows”. Against shoegaze guitar and dreamy synth — the kind Snow Patrol could aspire to if they only grew a pair — Kozelek imagines his life without this “beautiful princess.” He’d be an “empty old man” shamefully hitting on bank tellers and spending all his birthdays and Christmas holidays alone. Surprisingly, he admits he’s a “handful” and knows everyone will have a story to pass around when he’s dead, but there’s one thing that no one will ever forget: “just how much you mean, and how deeply I love you.”
Tenderness for loose acquaintances like Nick Cave bursts forth in “Exodus”, a nearly 10-minute ode to parents who’ve suffered the loss of a child. Languid piano and electronic syncopated rhythms lend it an airy Radiohead quality that puts up a good fight against Kozelek’s burdened vocals. He viscerally recounts learning about the accidental death of Cave’s 15-year-old son and remembers meeting them once. He then links this one tragic event to relatives who’ve buried a child that we’ve come to know through other Kozelek songs: his second cousin Carissa, his ex-girlfriend Katy, his grandparents. He’s been spared from experiencing this specific loss, but has also been close enough to it to know that “when parents outlive their children, it’s the cruelest cut” — and he clearly can feel its scars.
Rachel Goswell of Slowdive and Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk of Low float in the background to tether the song’s haunting refrain. Does Cave need Kozelek’s sympathy? No. Does any member of this tragically not-so-exclusive Bereaved Parents Club need a musical pat on the back? Of course not. The song isn’t for them, it’s for us as we peer into that unfathomable world. And no prayer is ever wasted.
On the bumping “Father’s Day”, Kozelek details his fondness for the kids on the playground by his house and their jovial noise, devotion to his parents despite their shortcomings, yearning for friends who didn’t make it to 48, and appreciation for life’s little wonders like the cobalt hue of the sky. The career curmudgeon is content, even considering reproducing. But leave it to his twisted mind to trace that “aha” moment back to flipping on CNN to reports about Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof.
Severely detailed detours like this will overtake Kozelek’s legacy, for better or worse. This stream of consciousness writing style was inaugurated on “Sunshine in Chicago”, cultivated to near-universal acclaim on Benji, and polished on last year’s Universal Themes. It’s a lot like navel-gazing, yet often serves a higher purpose. He doesn’t just deliver the good, the bad, and the ugly. He throws in the mundane, the uncomfortable, the tedious, and the miniscule. And he’s only getting more adept at it. He excels in TMI — not the kind we normally endure, like someone who wants to expel all the mystery behind a recent bout of food poisoning. Kozelek actually gives us too much information. No one walks away from one of his post-2011 records feeling refreshed. They’re exhausting. But so is life.
Kozelek sounds like a man making great strides in self-acceptance. This rosier outlook, coupled with Jesu’s fuzzy, grunge-era melodies, lightens (thankfully) the demands put on the listener. An annotated glossary outlining locations, people, and callbacks would still be helpful, though not necessarily essential.
His prickly nature does rear its head on two tracks that share the unfortunate “charm” of Kozelek reciting letters sent from his adoring public. At least on “Last Night I Rocked the Room Like Elvis and Had Them Laughing Like Richard Pryor”, the devoted fan gets a 25 percent songwriting credit, or so Kozelek tells us. “America’s Most Wanted Mark Kozelek” can be summed up in the oft-repeated phrase he discharges after a bundle of mind-numbing info: “That’s an account of my last few days.” Ending the song with glowing words from a British female fan still reeling from his gig in Manchester feels too heavy-handed in light his aforementioned onstage antics in London. Of the gig, the fan named Tanya says, “I got to share it with my husband, and my baby growing inside of me reacted with lots of kicks and movement.”
C’mon Mark: Jesu/Sun Kil Moon shows us who you are. We don’t need testimonials.
Essential Tracks: “A Song of Shadows”, “Exodus”, and “Good Morning My Love”