Year:2017 – Producer: Mark Kozelek – Label: Caldo Verde – Genre: Progressive Rock
Jeez Louise, this album is as exhausting to listen to as it is existential and expansive. But, alliteration aside, it’s actually a pretty good and ambitious double-album from the singer/songwriter Mark Kozelek, formally known as Sun Kil Moon. The album is a rare brand of progressive folk that lasts an incredible 130 minutes – and demands a whole lot of patience to listen to.
Although the general governing sound of this album is quite a skeletal combination of acoustic riffs and drum beats, Sun Kil Moon does throw around a few weird styles and instruments. Many of the tracks on this record consist of repeated riffs and phrases, usually bass, synth, or guitar, played over a drum beat. And these numbers will go on for around 10 minutes and they’ll be comprised of 3, maybe 4, sections. The opener, ‘God Bless Ohio’, is a pretty stellar example of the repetitive nature of Kozelek’s songwriting – which isn’t actually that problematic when listening to it. In a way it becomes quite soothing, you just embrace the uniformity and let it wash over you – some of the tracks even go by quite quickly.
The album does also deviate from traditional folk sounds, all you have to do is check out the dank synths on ‘The Highway Song’ and you’ll be made aware of that. But some wilder experimentation is carried out near the end of the record with the surprisingly blues-y ‘Bastille Day’ (which has some delicious keys reminiscent of Ray Manzarek) and the weird xylophones on ‘Vague Rock’ which are undoubtedly an homage to Zappa. One element of the songwriting which is quite constant, however, is the abrupt and jarring changes in segments. Sun Kil Moon isn’t afraid to very rapidly jump from soft acoustic folk to some fat synth/drum beat groove – ‘Lone Star’ being a good example of this.
The interaction between music and vocals on this record had me thinking: ‘Wait…is this…rap…?’. Of course, this album fundamentally exists on the folk spectrum, but by having repetitive instrumentation comprised of a basic melody and a drum beat with some quite loose and free-form vocals you end up getting something that resembles rap. Kozelek delivers these incredibly long-winded bouts of vocals and you keep thinking he’s going to run out of breath but he pulls it off somehow. At times the lyrics barely even follow the rhythm of the music and end up acting independently. It’s in songs like ‘Chili Lemon Peanuts’ that this sense of rap flow can be identified, simply due to the mechanics of the music.
Aside from this rap conspiracy theory, Sun Kil Moon has such a great voice to listen to. His voice’s earthy and oaky tone makes this lengthy album more bearable to listen to. It’s more gravelly than Father John Misty’s and lower in pitch but they have a similar style of singing. Even his spoken word stuff is so mesmerising; I could picture him doing the audio book for some existential book by Camus or Sartre.
This ties into the incredibly profound lyricism that you can find all throughout the album. Sun Kil Moon really takes up the role of a storyteller in this album and you’re not really sure whether the stuff he’s saying is true or not – like the numerous times he reads out diary entries. There are morose moments when he talks about his grandfather in a nursing home and there are more surreal moments like when he and his partner are stalked by a creepy lizard guy. And he’s also not afraid to be comical, there’s a great line in ‘Philadelphia Cop’ when he interrupts a conversation with himself by saying ‘Hang on a second, Sufjan Stevens is texting me’. When you mix all these tones together you end up with extremely emotive and immersive lyrics that can broadly be described as existential and contemplative. Perhaps one of the best on the record can be found on ‘Chili Lemon Peanuts’ when Sun Kil Moon professes: ‘I’ve had enough last goodbyes with people to know that it’s the most painful emotion in the world’.
In sum, I would have to say that this album is a zeitgeist of the world of today. It feels like it would be so much more powerful if you were to listen to it now, as close as possible to the events that Kozelek sings about. The fact this album is so rooted in the social and cultural climate of 2016 may cause it to become a sort of sonic time-capsule of this era. Along with talking about notable events of recent times like the Paris terrorist attacks, Sun Kil Moon also uses an avalanche of pop culture references throughout the album. There are many instances when he’s talking about pop culture that you can sense a general cynicism and indignation on his part towards the ideas of celebrity and consumerism – another parallel with FJM. This all makes for interesting, and sometimes funny, listening but the album does have one ‘major’ flaw and that’s its length. There are 16 tracks with an average length of 8 minutes. You really do have to be in the right frame of mind to listen to this album and you have to be patient (*really* patient). It’s not made any easier for you, the music isn’t dense and dynamic, it’s sparse and minimalist. Despite this, it is a rewarding listen, I do think it’s better than one of his most notable releases ‘Ghost of the Great Highway’. It’s a very human release from Kozelek and although it’s impressive, and even innovative at times, the length is a negative factor.
Top Tracks: God Bless Ohio, Chili Lemon Peanuts, Philadelphia Cop, I Love Portugal, Bastille Day