Things Mean A Lot
Sun Kil Moon - 2014
Music is never more powerful than when you’re growing up and popular music is essential when navigating the emotional minefield of your teenage years. Some people were lucky enough to come of age as Bob Dylan released his classic records. Another generation used The Smiths as the soundtrack to their own identity crisis. Here’s the story of my clumsy love for most things Mark Kozelek. It’s how his music continues to move me twenty years on. It’s also a review of Benji, kinda.
Lakeshore Record Exchange was once a cramped and dimly lit independent music shop at the top of Monroe Ave in Rochester, NY. Don’t look for it, it’s not there anymore (having since relocated to a trendy corner of Park Ave.) but in 1994, alternative music fans would spend an hour flipping through the black racks of empty jewel cases that lined the walls of a space no bigger than your kitchen. The discs themselves were kept in deep, black drawers behind the counter. The cashier would rifle through thousands of sleeves to find your intended purchase, that is if the phone didn’t ring. This finger fluttering by the employee caused either a minute of restrained jubilation or a lifetime of embarrassment depending on your selection. The cases had been opened and the discs removed for security reasons but it allowed customers two distinct benefits. First, you could discover the liner note secrets as you perused the shelves. Second, you could preview a promising title. Three brief case style cd players sat on the counter at the front of house and through bulky, black headphones you could sample whole tracks before you paid. It was here on a winter afternoon that I first encountered the strangest song I’ve ever heard, bought a record that was out of order, and set out on a journey in the wrong direction.
There I was flipping through endless discs when I arrived at an album whose cover was entirely different from the rest. It was pastoral and picturesque. It showed a sepia toned bridge that crossed a quiet river in what could be a local wildlife sanctuary. It seemed very out of place among the typical malevolent artwork of the early 1990’s. Also, the liner notes were sparse. There was absolutely nothing to indicate the style of music contained therein. The album had no title but the band called themselves Red House Painters. Perhaps their music was in the same vein as 10,000 Maniacs I wondered. I was also surprised to discover that the album in question had a grand total of eight songs. This was very strange indeed. I took the case to the clerk and he handed me the corresponding disc. I didn’t know quite what to expect as I filled the tray and the machine began to whir. Now, you might expect a song entitled ‘Evil’ to be a challenging listen and when it comes to the opening cut on the Red House Painters (II) LP, you’d be absolutely right. It has unnerving chuckles, a glacial tempo, troubling lyrics, and simply the creepiest ending to any song ever recorded. I vividly remember hearing the song as I stood in that dark music store. I immediately looked to see if the lone staff member was messing with me. At this point, I was distraught. I’ve honestly never heard anything like it before or since. I was a complete stranger to slowcore at the time and with the grunge movement well underway, I wasn’t prepared for this sedate approach to songwriting. But it was the quality of Mark Kozelek’s voice that really struck me. This wasn’t Kurt’s screaming apathy. It wasn’t Cornell’s rock god howl. It wasn’t Reznor’s self-loathing yell. It wasn’t Vedder’s deep throated croon. It wasn’t Thom Yorke’s bitter wail. It wasn’t Bono’s haunting call. It was different from everything else happening at that time. Here was a man with an open and tender voice singing about emotional torment in a conversational and brutally honest manner. I was already entranced with his music when ‘Bubble’ came through the headphones. ‘Bubble’ is an altogether jaunty track after ‘Evil’. Musically, the song feels rather wistful. The song has an arpeggiated guitar figure that is major and melodic. I listened with yearning as the song progressed and decided then and there that this devastating album was coming home with me, heart wrenching lyrics and all.
There were other Red House Painters discs on the shelves that day but I had fallen in love with the tracks I’d heard and decided that this was the disc for me. I wanted to begin with what I thought was their debut. After all, it was a self-titled release. It simply had to be their first record! I made a conscious decision to start with this, their first album and move steadily through their discography. I was desperate to develop a deep understanding of the band. I would carefully unlock the intricacies of their music in chronological fashion. It turns out that I was of course completely wrong about the release dates of my new favorite band. First of all, you have to understand that the information in question is nowhere to be found on the disc or liner notes which was uncommon at the time. In this regard my mistake was somewhat understandable. Also, the “internet” of ’94 was simply unprepared to provide me with the sort of information I required to change my thinking. However, after a week of listening to what was in fact the third album, I returned to Lakeshore in an effort to procure their next album.
I simply couldn’t wait to hear what I thought was the next album from Mark and his crew. There in the racks lay an album whose cover was darker than the Bridge album. It showed a broken Coney Island rollercoaster car quietly baking in the rays of a sepia sun. I remember thinking that the group had changed course from the Bridge album and that this heavy photograph was a sign of them heading in a darker direction. In fact I had taken one step back in terms of their output and purchased their second record. Regardless, RHP (I) contains several seminal tracks. ‘Grace Cathedral Park’ is a perfect opening cut that is as beautiful as it is devastating. You get the stripped down version of New Jersey (a tune I loved to cover in my band at the time, The Blind). There is the phenomenal piano rendition of Mistress. But mostly there is Katy Song. There were a few songs that I was completely “obsessed” with at the time in my life. Songs that I couldn’t get out of my head (though mostly because I didn’t stop playing it). It was THE song that made it onto every friend’s mix tape. Let me sum up the gravity of this song with a single lyric.
“Glass on the pavement under my shoe, without you is all my life amounts to.”
Teenage Colin simply could not get enough of such a raw musical expression.
The wistful songs on Rollercoaster confirmed my commitment to the band and their wondrous music. Now, it was time to take the plunge. I once again strode back into the darkened halls of the Exchange to claim the only other RHP disc that I had not yet heard. Please remember that I was still completely convinced that I was charting the band’s trajectory in perfect synchronicity. This last (first) album was entitled, Down Colorful Hill. I decided that the band had finally ditched the eponymous charade in order to deliver their most stark album yet. The gothic cover of Down Colorful Hill presents an image of Emily Dickinson’s bed. Or at least the black and white photograph is the picture of a bed that one would expect Dickinson to inhabit. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I got the record home. However, I can recall my surprise when the CD player in my bedroom first told me that the 6 (6!) songs on the album clocked in at an astounding 44 minutes of run time. Buckle up and hope for the best I thought. I quickly discovered that each and every track on this third album (really their debut) is a winner. Kozelek’s personal lyrics stare at you unflinching. A wash of reverb covers the sound of a band distant but precise. Each song is an emotional wasteland of introspection. I was simply delighted.
’24’ begins with Mark looking at his life after 24 years on the planet and noticing with a cynical eye that he is not a legendary rock star. This bitter revelation comes with an extreme sense of resentment. It is the same indignation that continues to always plagued him as an artist and 25 years later. There is now conclusive evidence to suggest that Kozelek is a man for whom rancor is familiar bed fellow. These days, the fact that he has failed to be recognized as a seminal songwriter has left a chip on this guy’s shoulder that would make the Grand Canyon blush.
‘Medicine Bottle’ has a set of lyrics that never cease to amaze me. Google them on a rainy afternoon. The track ends ten minutes later with Mark admitting that he’s “Not wanting to die out here/without you.” I am crushed.
‘Japanese to English’ is the 4th track on this perfect album. It’s the shortest track but it continues to leave me longing for those fleeting moments that happen only in your youth. Moments that you wished you’d had.
And that was it! I was a lifelong fan. One of things that makes this musical journey all the more incredible is that I’ve never heard three perfect consecutive albums from an group or artist. Think of your absolute desert islands records right now. Do any of the bands have three five star albums? Don’t be ridiculous. It doesn’t happen. I considered myself to be extremely lucky that I had randomly stumbled on this remarkable band. Perhaps there is no such thing as an accident? Regardless, I had heard the poetry and felt the magical sadness of the music by this other worldly group and I would never be the same again. Some sort of Red House Painters emblem should by rights be tattooed somewhere on my person but I never could decide which of the many songs I should choose to commemorate. I had found the soundtrack to my desolation and it rang out with vitriolic effect for many years to come. Bliss.
Unfortunately, this is where my relationship with this incredible band falls apart. Their next album Ocean Beach had a single. A single? Really?! Summer Dress is as pathetic as the title suggests. It got worse. Songs for a Blue Guitar had a track that was featured in a Gap commercial! There were some label issues with the band and Mark lost patience with the whole thing and then before we knew it, Red House Painters was no more. They gave us 6 albums on three different labels and the first three were perfection. The only thing of note at this point was that Kozelek wasn’t afraid to include cover versions of songs on these later records. The group had put together some stunning reinventions of songs by everyone from AC/DC to the Cars. Kozelek has since become renowned of course for his interpretations and radical rewordings of popular songs. He’s done John Denver songs and musical numbers! However, Kozelek did once remark that he only covers songs that needed improvement. Anyway, the Painters spilt up and I was ready for something new myself. I went off to college just as Mr. Kozelek was venturing off in a different direction.
I could go on about the tremendous joy it gave me to introduce new friends to the Painters in college but let’s just fast forward to Kozelek’s next phase. You see, this artist has gone through a tremendous transformation. Not so much an artistic arc but more of a Scrooge like slide for his entire career. He has traveled a rocky road with bandmates and labels, to say nothing of his development as a musician! It is this rich experience of resistance that has pushed him to be the cantankerous individual he is today. At this point, he is a foul mouthed and broken man. His vulgar attitude on stage this year alone has made him into a caricature of the failed rock star pushing 50. He wouldn’t get away with the insipid on stage rants if he didn’t happen to write songs of such staggering beauty and honesty.
I don’t want you to think I had completely fallen out of favor with one of the most inspirational artists in my life and so I shall now dedicate this entire part to a single track that Kozelek put out during the short lived period in which he was releasing music under his own name. The opening track of the Rock ’n’ Roll Singer EP is quintessential Kozelek. There are beautiful acoustic guitar figures but more importantly, there are his heart wrenching lyrical offerings.
Find me asleep near deserts and oceans
Places I couldn’t have dreamed
They are all cold and frozen without you
They are nothing
It is this song in particular that I use as evidence against Kozelek haters. You don’t need to love his early slow-core mope or his latest observational rants to see that this is a beautifully written song. If you haven’t heard of this Kozelek guy then I highly recommend this subtle and sublime piece of music.
Out of college, money spent, etc. I was working in a record shop in 2003 when Sun Kil Moon released their debut album. ‘Ghosts of the Great Highway’ received rave reviews and won Kozelek a brand new set of fans with such critical acclaim. Some publications wrote that it was a return to the glory days of the Painters! Needless to say I found/find it to be one of the disappointing albums I have ever heard. I tried it again recently and simply cannot believe the praise it is given. I think Kozelek was really into Wilco or on some other god forsaken alt-country trip at the time but either way, the album leaves me loathing. It was actually a relief to know that I could finally break up the relationship I had had with this music and start the process of looking back with a “we’ll always have Paris” mind set. It’s like when you heard ‘Hail to the Thief’ or anything after Pearl Jam’s ‘Ten’. “Gosh, thank goodness I can move on from this painful experience and heal myself by remembering the highlights of a formerly great artist.” It was just when I’d given up all hope that Kozelek once again blew my mind.
Two years later and Sun Kil Moon drop the follow up to their celebrated debut. Tiny Cities is an album of Modest Mouse cover songs and there is simply no other way of saying that it was ripped to shreds by reviewers. My favorite quote comes from Pitchfork who wrote the following of this ‘sophomore slump’:
“These tracks are botched experiments that can’t even function as interesting failures.”
Ouch. That has got to hurt if you’re the artist receiving such a harsh critique. It also happens to be the most embarrassing misstep I’ve ever encountered by a writer or a music publication. It’s so poor in fact that the website no longer allows you access to the original post! That’s better than Rolling Stone’s original review of Dylan’s Love & Theft when they famously misquoted Bob as singing “I’m proposing a toast to ‘decay’” on Summer Days! They were trying to suggest that Dylan was proud of his vocal collapse when nothing could be further from the truth. Just for the record, Bob was of course toasting to “the king”. Oh well, whatever (Rolling Stone), Nevermind.
Anyway, I have never been a Modest Mouse fan. I recognize that Brock is a great lyricist but the music made by that group makes Blind Melon look like the London Symphony Orchestra by comparison. But as you can already guess, I feel head over heels in love with Tiny Cities. It is flawless and it HAD to be nothing short of perfect in order for me to regain my passion for all things Kozelek. I still listen to that album and hold it in such high regard. It’s like Morrissey’s comeback album ‘You are the Quarry’ of 2004. It’s everything a die hard fan could want of an artist that they once loved.
Luckily, the critics and I agreed on Sun Kil Moon’s third album, ‘April’. It’s stunning. It’s a tapestry of intricate guitar work and unapologetic feeling. The record is so very personal. It was the closest that fans would get to understanding the artist behind the songs (until the release of Benji). Kozelek leaves an emotional avalanche at your feet and it’s impossible to ignore the epic tug of war on your heart as this glowing album grows. The very first track ‘Lost Verses’ has a musical twist similar to ‘Blindfold’ from the RHP Bridge Album. The slow, acoustic nature of the song finally gives way to an upbeat electric feel that fades out beautifully.
There are mid tempo rockers and dark acoustic bluesy ballads which make ‘April’ a complete aural adventure for tourists and devotees alike.
Friday June 11th, 2008 was the most bizarre gig I’ve ever attended. I’d bought tickets for my wife and I to see Mark perform a solo show (more or less) at an intimate venue at the Boston MFA. I’d never seen him perform before and I was delighted to catch him while touring for April. We almost didn’t actually see the man perform of course because he keeps the lights so low that he is but a shadow on stage. Let me start with the fact that the music and his performance was fantastic. He played old and new tracks and even through in an impromptu cover of Follow You, Follow Me by Genesis. However, the remarks he made between songs were absolutely absurd.
First off, Kozelek admitted that he was in a bad mood because he’d left his wallet and keys at last night’s gig in Rochester NY(!). He then complained about the epic car ride to Boston with his guitarist. This poor guy was sick to death of being around Kozelek. He went on to complain about a life of cut rate hotel rooms. He started talking about how young girls used to talk to him after the shows and now it’s middle aged men that come up to him. This same disappointment actually wound up in the lyrics on Benji! Kozelek spent most the night tuning his guitar as his songs are written in a variety of unusual tunings. At one point after the second or third song when the room was silent and we the patient audience was quiet when Kozelek addressed us directly. This auditorium was a small room remember and so the space lent itself well to the sort of conversational approach to performing. “What are you guys thinking while I’m tuning?” There was a light flurry of requests and then one daring young man asked Kozelek when he was putting the band back together. This did not go down well with the singer. He turned to his despondent sidekick and said something to the effect of never mind, let’s just play another song. Half way through the set Mark let us know this was the last night that Jeff the guitarist would be playing with him despite the fact that the tour had only just started. A gentleman in his 40’s saw an opportunity and called out to Kozelek saying that he would gladly play guitar with him. Mark took one look at this guy and said, “but how am I going to get girls with you around, you’ve got the reverse mohawk going.” Some of us squirmed in our seats and others just groaned. Finally, a different gentleman asked Kozelek directly; “do you always badmouth your audiences?” Kozelek seemed surprised. “You guys think I’m badmouthing you?” He went on to play another song and we all tried to ignore the awkwardness that wouldn’t leave the room. After the final song Kozelek left stage with his wilted assistant in tow. We didn’t get a goodnight, a thanks, and we certainly knew enough not to expect an encore. It was a strange evening indeed.
Kozelek returned to the studio again in 2010. The last undiscovered country for Mark was his guitar playing. He decided to ditch the band and use a solo classical guitar to accompany his next set of songs. I have no idea who ‘Admiral Fell Promises’ is for. It’s not an album for him or his fans. It is either for his significant other or to convince the listener that he is an accomplished guitarist. It’s a drawn out album that leaves you feeling mystified. Again, it’s just when I’m feeling disillusioned by this artist that a vibrant change starts to occur.
Kozelek decided in his infinite wisdom that the follow up to Admiral Fell Promises would be an album entitled Among the Leaves. Again, it features mostly nylon string guitar work as Kozelek was really inspired by Segovia at this time. Among the Leaves was when the cracks really started to show. Kozelek was finally ready to show the world the truth. Warts and all. The song titles alone show a man unhinged.
The Moderately Talented Yet Attractive Young Woman vs. The Exceptionally Talented Yet Not So Attractive Middle Aged Man
Not Much Rhymes With Everything’s Awesome At All Times
You could tell that this guy was about to crack and the results would be every bit as entertaining as his breakdown has become. At this point, we were starting to get the idea that this person would eventually call an entire audience a bunch of “fuckin’ hillbillies.” To make matters worse, shortly after that incident Kozelek’s website starting selling T shirts that read “All You Fuckin' Hillbillies Shut The Fuck Up". This Mr. Hyde character would eventually go on to write the song “War on Drugs: Suck My Cock.” Yes, Kozelek would fully embrace his inner Scrooge in 2014 but his demons started to show on Among the Leaves in 2012.
Benji. Well, no. Not yet. Actually, let’s talk about the 1964 album Folk Singer by Muddy Waters instead. I remember driving home from the record store and listening to that album for the first time. I didn’t breathe. I didn’t want to miss a note. I didn’t want to lose a word. The same goes for Kid A. That album was beamed from a distant planet into the speakers at Borders Books & Music on Monday night October 2nd at 11:01. You know right away when you find yourself in the presence of greatness. Same thing happened one Sunday in September 2004 when I was blindsided by Nick Cave’s Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus. GET READY FOR LOVE!!! Perfect albums don’t sneak up on you. They take your by the ears and pull you in.
Now, finally, Benji. Quite simply it’s the album that I’ve wanted from Kozelek from the beginning. It tells the story of his life in incredible, endless verses. It’s the background on who he was growing and how he found his way to where he is today. It’s the all access back stage pass. It’s the best autobiography I’ve read this year. It’s morbid. It’s passionate. It tells ruthlessly sad tales of friends and family. It’s brutally honest. It’s the truth. Never before has a mid-life crisis produced such a wonderful album. There are some similarities to early work like the repetition of names in the choruses just like in Uncle Joe off the Bridge album but mostly this is a totally new style of writing for Kozelek. So that is the story of Kozelek and Me.C. Scott Back
C. Scott ranks this as the
#1 favorite album of 2014