A list of the tricks I tried to kick-start this examination of the career of Mark Kozelek:
- Listening to all his Red House Painters, Sun Kil Moon, and solo albums I own in order of their release.
- Reading everything I can about him online.
- Staring at a blank Word document as the anxiety that I have nothing to say rises until I consider giving up and going to the house where I’m temporarily living, stopping only long enough at Trader Joe’s to buy beer that will take away the sting of being a floundering writer, self-loathing artist, and galactically flawed human being.
Which, when I think about it, is what so much of what Kozelek’s musical oeuvre has been about.
That realization hit me right in the middle of “Byrd Joel,” the second track off Old Ramon, the last RHP album. It has long been one of my favorite Kozelek tracks: full of the yearning and wistfulness and regret of a man coming to terms with not only losing a woman he loved, but the realization that maybe his love had not been as deep and true as he had been telling himself. The slow horror of finally being honest with yourself creeping along under an up-tempo beat and fuzzy electric guitars. Kozelek straight rocking out is the best Kozelek, and a side of himself he seems to have mostly given up exploring in the last few years.
Anyway, that Kozelek baritone started in on those opening lyrics (“My baby sleeps in blue / warm and naked, pale and pretty”), the energy I was putting into anxiously tapping my feet transferred itself to my wrists and hands and fingers, and I started typing, grateful as I always am for this gift. Which is another Kozelek theme, though you have to look a little harder to find it: Gratitude.
I came to Mark Kozelek’s music when tracks from Ghosts of the Great Highway, his first album under the Sun Kil Moon moniker, started popping up on my Pandora station. This was sometime around 2006 or early 2007. Almost a decade later, I still consider Ghosts one of the most perfectly arranged rock albums I’ve ever heard. The opening track, “Glenn Tipton,” is perfect. The last track, “Pancho Villa” (a reworked acoustic version of the second track, “Salvador Sanchez”) is perfect. Everything in between is perfect. There is not a false note or unearned moment in these ten ruminations on youth, growing old, death, and boxing.
It’s funny, the disregard we have for the happiness of our artists. After Ghosts of the Great Highway, I was hooked. I bought up every RHP album. I bought Kozelek’s solo stuff. On track after track I listened to this angry and melancholy man wring himself out over lost loves, friends gone too soon, and nostalgia for times gone by. Who couldn’t relate to all of that?
I certainly could. I had “Carry Me Ohio” off Ghosts playing almost on a loop while taking what felt like forever to get over a broken heart in 2008. I played “Cruiser”1 over and over whenever I contemplated moving away from Los Angeles, where I lived at the time. That song, with its imagery offering a promise of a better life and the sadness of leaving the city behind (“Drive me down the 405 / Where my airplane leaves tonight / Tippin’ up and touchin’ down / Leave L.A. sparkling on the ground / L.A. glitters on the ground”) probably kept me filled with an otherwise unwarranted optimism about a life in need of a spiritual kick to the head. As Michael Chabon wrote in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, the “ruinous work of nostalgia” can always be counted on to obliterate the past.
All of this moping is why I needed a few years to appreciate 2008’s April, the Sun Kil Moon follow-up to Ghosts. Taken together, though, the emotional arc of the two albums tells a middle-aged story of a man who must wrestle his regrets into submission before he can come to a state of peace. But on first listen, I was mostly just disappointed it was not Ghosts. Whereas that album had been a lean hour that left me wanting more, April was a bloated 75 minutes and included three songs that were at least nine and a half minutes in length and two more that nearly hit the eight-minute mark. It felt self-indulgent.
And maybe it was easy for a person of a certain temperament to be in love with misery masquerading as depth. Not every teenager grows out of that phase. So it was easy to miss the grace in lyrics like “And all the turbulent highways I’ve taken to get here / To you in this home in this moment, for that I am grateful.” It was easy to overlook the gratitude of a musician coming home to his love in San Francisco after a long tour: “Over the bridge, the city sparkles so bright / Our hungry stomachs smell bread rise / Dim light of television, bedding soft down / And hear the perfect night as foghorns sound.” I had to be in a better place in my own life to hear these things.
Or maybe I’m wrong about all of this. Kozelek has always had a prickly nature. However, the public spats the last couple of years — with the band War on Drugs and a festival crowd in North Carolina — and his misogynistic taunting of a female British music critic have been downright cruel and nasty. And after two more light-hearted Sun Kil Moon records (the second of which, Among the Leaves, was downright playful and among his best work), the singer has come back with 2014’s Benji and the recently released Universal Themes. The first earned Kozelek some of the most inexplicably positive reviews of his career despite a hyper-literalism in the lyrics that makes every song feel like a slog through a teenager’s journal. Universal Themes is no better lyrically, though the music has a certain rock factor that is fun to listen to. These two albums have fused Kozelek’s famous prickliness with a more cynical version of the gratitude found on April. On Benji in particular we find him flaunting a certain happiness to have made it out of his native Ohio town as he recounts the insane tragedies that have befallen some of his friends and family, alternating with crabbiness over being a middle-aged musician with an aching back and a smaller fan following than some of his musical contemporaries.
Sometimes music is just music. We can’t know what is in the head or even the private life of a public figure, no matter how confessional his creative work might seem. And maybe if I were a musician nearing 50, I would like the option of not touring if I don’t have to. Maybe I would even be prickly and slip into middle-aged grouchiness. I like to think, though, that having had a taste of peacefulness, I could finally stop being an asshole.