An evening with Mark Kozelek
Saturday, March 1, 2014
Great American Music Hall
Better than: Jesus' Son: The Musical
One of the most heavy-handed Significant Message scenes in the new Robocop is the one where this guy -- a vet, presumably -- has just been outfitted with new robotic prosthesis-hands and is trying to play classical guitar again for the first time since losing his hands while esteemed robotic prosthesis doctor Gary Oldman looks on dotingly. The prosthesis-hands work great at first, but then the guy is so overwhelmed -- with gratitude, presumably -- that he starts to fuck up "Concierto de Aranjuez," so Gary Oldman's lab tech turns down the guy's emotional rawness levels or whatever. But the guy still can't play it right and now he's frustrated in addition to overwhelmed, and Gary Oldman or his lab tech tries to explain that he should just calm down because his emotions are interfering with the function of the prosthesis-hands. And the guy is like -- Significant Message alert -- "I need emotion to play."
I bring this up because, well, what do you think goes through Mark Kozelek's head when he sits on stage performing, or sits at home writing, these almost objectively beautiful songs that are almost always about either learning of somebody's death or failing to find love in a sustainably requited or redemptive form? (Also because, come to think of it, Kozelek makes cameos in movies sometimes, and what if the presumable vet in Robocop had been him? (Also, what do you think the odds are that Mark Kozelek's next album will include a song about learning of Paco de Lucía's death? R.I.P., Paco de Lucía.))
The answer, at first, seems to be not much. It's not that his songs are devoid of feeling, it's just that the feeling in them comes across as curiously depthless, so matter-of-fact and casually expository that you wonder whether he's actually processed any of what he's telling us about. The first line of "Truck Driver," from Benji, his sixth album as Sun Kil Moon, which came out in February, is "My uncle died in a fire on his birthday." The fourth line is "and that's how he died in a fire that day."
By all means this has been part of the weird charm of Kozelek's last few albums: that he's stripped away so much nuance and artifice from his songs that nothing remains but the purest, most authentic and self-absorbed reactions to the world around him. Off the top of my head, I can think of two songs from the last two years in which he specifically recounts being bummed about someone's death not so much in the abstract as for the inconvenience it will cause him, and how much more honest can you get? Yes, he feels things, that's for sure; he just feels them the way that a six-year-old or a Cylon does, and what business is it of yours if he doesn't feel them for you? Why should he? It's not like it's malicious. Malice requires trace amounts of empathy.
All of which seems like a fine place to leave it. Then you see him live for the first time and the screw turns again: he is such a real human adult person it's almost oppressive. On stage, between songs and 20-second stretches of guitar tuning, he's charismatic and sharp and funny and present, and if he devotes most of that presence to being a total dick you somehow don't feel able to hold it against him. (Exhibit A, from banter break number one, "I don't give a fuck about Noise Pop. What's great for me is to be able to come down here, ten blocks from my apartment, pick up ten thousand bucks, and go home.") So where do self-awareness and cynicism fit into the equation? How do we get from pure and authentic feeling to introducing "Micheline" as "a very uplifting and inspiring song about a retarded girl who was taken advantage of in my neighborhood when I was a kid"?
I don't have an answer. I know Benji registered a 9.2 on the Pitchfork Richter scale and that a lot of people seemed to have brought dates to Saturday night's show without having thought that move all the way through, and I know that Kozelek didn't play a single song of the hundreds he released between 1989 and 2012 (except technically about twenty seconds of the Red House Painters song "Summer Dress" sung in an Aaron Neville impersonation), which is to say there was no indication that he used to write songs full of fictional characters and comparatively titanic emotive heft. I can't tell how much contempt there was embedded in that decision, but I can't imagine, in light of all of the above, that it was meant to oblige us, exactly.
What Kozelek did play was all of Benji straight through, skipping three songs and switching the order of two, in a cluster he called "the deep and vast history of songs that I've released in the last two months." Then he played four songs from Perils from the Sea, his excellent 2013 collaboration with Jimmy Lavalle of The Album Leaf, and three from his collaboration with Desertshore, and four from 2012's wonderful Sun Kil Moon album Among the Leaves. All of them were shot through with the same pugnacious melancholy, the same it-is-what-it-is, and all of them were lovely in their own raw, unsmiling way.
But what happened to the tender pastoralism of Kozelek's first two decades? Did it go peacefully in its sleep, or did it die in yet another senseless waste-disposal accident? Did he just wake up one morning, in Warsaw or Singapore, and realize he could get more traction with his core constituency of "guys in tennis shoes" -- to quote "Sunshine in Chicago," which he did not play, though he reprised the sentiment when he groused that most of the fans he could see from the stage were dudes with beards and checkered shirts -- by just selling the unvarnished, undigested, remorselessly human moments of his life? That's what we got, anyway, with the occasional lapse into more imaginative introspection. Like this one, from "Tavoris Cloud": "At the age of 46, I'm still one fucked up little kid." Nice work if you can get it.
A list of people I would have compared Kozelek to, in reality or my imagination, given more time: Forrest Gump, Raymond Carver, Sam Beam, Denis Johnson, Morrie Schwartz, Louis CK interviewing the Dalai Lama, Tao Lin, your gruff but grudgingly respected gym or social studies teacher, Abraham Simpson, a big-eyed puppy dog who just shat in your shoes, Larry David.
Revelation: The refrain in "That Bird Has A Broken Wing" is "I really love you more than that / but I'm half man, half alley cat" and not, as I had long understood it, "I really love you more than that / but I'm half man, half alligator."
Recommendation: Read Ian Port's review of Benji.