It was a night for the music obscurists that's for sure.
Who is Mark Kozelek? It seems like a ridiculous question; after all, the 52-year-old has headed as many as 27 studio albums across a career that has slowly become more and more introspective and brooding. But after sitting through nearly three hours of Kozelek play what could best be termed as podcast rock, the man is still a mystery.
Few things about this gig made sense. The gig was billed as Sun Kil Moon, but it was more ‘The Mark Kozelek Show’. Only five of the 11 songs played were Sun Kil Moon songs – the rest mainly stemming from his recent collaborations with current bandmates Jim White and Ben Boye. The show was at the modestly sized Thornbury Theatre where the ballroom is gilded white and feels more like a town hall than a venue. Kozelek was playing to a room full of foldable chairs and looking around, there was nobody under the age of 30 in sight.
The songwriter turned up to the theatre as unfazed as he is in his songs, walking through the front doors with a mild limp and no entourage. A bemused MC introduced the band alongside the announcement that no photos or video were allowed. When Kozelek took to the stage with Boye and Dirty Three’s White on drums, he was in no rush, taking a good minute to take a chair that had been carefully placed in the middle of the stage and put it behind him.
“Laying in my bed ceiling gazing/Wide awake with jet lag from Australia,” Kozelek began, swaying half-jokingly. Dressed in all black, he looked like Johnny Cash if he’d never slept or smiled.
The trio’s arrangements were sparse, but satisfying in their restraint. White didn’t need to use more than the brushes to conjure a frantic energy, while Boye held the repetitive melodies. It would have been nice to have Donnie McCaslin (saxophonist who played on this years I Also Want to Die in New Orleans as well as David Bowie’s Blackstar), though if it were that jazzy the show may have been even more exhausting.
Kozelek’s delivery has shifted significantly over the years, but no change has been as dramatic as post-Benji. Benji was a breakout critical success, capturing comparatively terse songs about grief with sinister melody. Kozelek has engaged in critical self-sabotage in his prolific output ever since, making increasingly diaristic and talky music and probably losing fans. Mount Eerie’s recent grief-stricken output is its closest musical relative, but Kozelek differentiates himself through his brutal mundanity. Kozelek himself put it best on the night in ‘My Love For You is Undying’: “Though some may find my specifying agonizing and trying/Longwinded and unsatisfying/Others may find it hypnotizing, comforting, and inspiring”.
What most critics have seemed to miss in Kozelek’s recent music is that it’s hilarious. A lengthy new unrecorded song ‘Spanish Hotels are Echoey’ forensically tracked Kozelek hanging out after Bilbao’s BIME music festival in Spain. Kozelek speaks to Stephen Malkmus of Pavement who tells him about his open relationship and how he likes Kozelek’s unfiltered stream of consciousness. Kozelek argues with a hotel worker who receives complaints he is having sex too loudly on a rickety bed: “Put some fucking rugs on the floor, so lovers can be lovely. It’s not my fucking fault that Spanish hotels are so echoey”.
What is notable across the near three-hour concert is how little self-reflection is contained in this hyper-specific writing. It is stenographic in his observed experience without ever being introspective. Kozelek sings intricately of jetlag, hanging out to have breakfast early in motels, not sleeping well and a seriously bizarre love for cats, but never his soul.
‘I’m Not Laughing at You’ from this year’s I Also Want to Die in New Orleans was a more pointed political highlight, though it verged on ‘Old Man Yells at Cloud’ territory. Kozelek wasn’t ignorant of the bitter political atmosphere in Australia at the moment either, attacking it from a wry perspective.
“Scott Morrison? Sounds like some fucking redneck my sister dated,” Kozelek said.
“You’ll be okay. You’re still gonna have Netflix, Facebook and all that stuff.”
A schticky piece near the end of the set involved Kozelek singing the Sonny and Cher duet ‘I Got You’ with an unusually talented audience member. The purpose was to lighten the grim mood near the end, though it was the convoluted tribute to Oslo, Norway, ‘This is My Dinner’, that ended the night. Most of the crowd fell away exhausted, unable to process any more Kozelek filtered observation. It’s not an experience you’ll get with anyone else – for better and worse.
Highlight: Whenever Kozelek was most self-aware – ‘Spanish Hotels are Echoey’.
Lowlight: Three hours is a very, very long time.
Crowd Favourite: The Sonny and Cher duet with a random audience member.