Live / Reviews

LIVE: Sun Kil Moon, Barbican Hall, London, 1/06/15

©2015 Stefania Ianne – All rights reserved. Twitter @stillarte

I’m not a fan of Mark Kozelek aka Sun Kil Moon. I was never interested in the Red House Painters. I was even less interested in his adventure as a solo artist. When I first approached his music, I was not enthusiastic about it, quite the contrary. But this once I decide to go and see him live anyway, to see what all the fuss is about. Still, I start walking towards the Barbican unconvinced, still trying to make up my mind. The wind, ironically, pushes me in the opposite direction. I wonder what is it that some people find in Sun Kil Moon, a middle-aged musician obsessed with boxing. There is something in his lyrics that makes them sound sexist, although I would not go so far as to describe them as misogynistic. Certainly his writings are not very politically correct. Above all, I cannot relate to his lyrics, despite the very humane stories he tells: loss, death, negativity. His songs sound like the product of a mind that has finally become aware of the absurdity of life, of mortality.

Given the premise above, tonight I’m not surprised at all to see an audience made up mainly of men, mainly men who are no longer young. Up until a few minutes before the start of the concert, I am still wondering what I am doing in this place… There is no one to open for Sun Kil Moon tonight. Suddenly, after a short wait, four musicians climb the stairs to the stage, no acoustic guitar in sight, unlike other recent Sun Kil Moon gigs. A smiling Neil Halstead, former Slowdive and Mojave 3, British, is on the main guitar, while Kozelek intently avoids his guitar for most of the show. Instead, throughout the concert, he paces the stage up and down, so much so that after a few minutes he starts reminding me of the tortured main character in the Sundance Channel series Rectify, Daniel Holden. It is unsettling, mainly because it feels like you can never be sure of what he will do next, nor how he will react. Tonight photography is not allowed; there are no professional photographers and no member of the audience dares hit the record button on their devices. I look around. Most of the public appears to be enthralled. They hang on to his every word. They laugh at his jokes and, whatever Kozelek says, they are still laughing at what they perceive as jokes. I’d rather he did not speak, because the music is powerful. I’d rather not witness his nervous movements on stage, he looks like a caged animal. The other musicians on stage seem tense, sometimes embarrassed. The tension is palpable. But the music is powerful, and the voice is powerful: it needs no microphone. The desperate post-punk cries he starts uttering at one point take me by surprise. They were not scripted. The voice is desperate. As for the rest – the banter – it all seems like the façade of a clown who wants to hide his own embarrassment, or perhaps his boredom. Kozelek tonight definitely appears closer to a clown trying to hide his despair.

Is it important to list the songs we are hearing? There are many from Benji and Universal Themes, of course, the latter just released today. ‘This is a launch party’, he says. Sarcastic? Maybe. The British press did not appreciate Universal Themes, we are told. Kozelek begins his diatribe against the press. They can make or break you, they can feed the hype or destroy an artist on a whim. ‘I love the press’, he says wryly. Kozelek does not really have much of a reason to complain: Benji’s success put him in a very comfortable financial situation. ‘Of course it is not Benji‘, he muses, ‘it does not happen every day that one of my cousins dies in an anomalous incident and I cannot re-write a song about how I lost my virginity’. True. Perhaps the stories are not as effective but, from where I stand musically, Universal Themes seems a more powerful album than Benji. And then again there is that voice. For the first time tonight it resounds powerful, scathing, louder than the instruments on stage during ‘Richard Ramirez Today Died of Natural Causes’, a song that emphasises the absurdity inherent to the death by natural causes of a serial killer. F ** k! The world is absurd, life is unfair. Suddenly I feel like I just rediscovered the absurdity of life tonight. Kozelek somehow keeps avoiding his guitar whenever possible and, often, he simply hits a drum strategically placed at the forefront of the stage. He suddenly stops a song after a few bars and says: ‘This is just like Planet of the Apes!‘. At the beginning of the concert the humour on stage is self-deprecatory. He is comparing himself to one of those apes. He even jokes about the fact that he cannot keep fit. ‘Do not laugh at my bulging stomach’, he says, and warns us not to go on social media to mock him about it. He jokingly takes issue with the embarrassed yet still smiling Neil Halstead who, according to Kozelek, looks exactly the same after twenty years. It does not matter if he eats horrible fried rubbish. Whereas Kozelek, despite eating just salads, has turned into the ‘f***ing Los Lobos’, (quote). Bang.

When was it in the concert that Kozelek went back to being his unpleasant self, when did he shift the target of his so-called jokes? All of a sudden, the press becomes his target once again. He starts talking about a journalist [Laura Snapes] who had been trying to interview him at all costs, a woman, and somehow obviously the blow is low: ‘She totally wants to fuck me. Get in the queue, bitch!’. I’m quoting. I’m aghast, what he is saying right now is totally gratuitous and unprovoked. This utterance is not the end of it all: Kozelek goes on and on repeating the same concept, although eventually he tries to sweeten the pill somehow, ‘she is a good kid, really’. The audience laughs. I just cannot understand what they are laughing about, really. Gratuitous insults do not help. So much so that the following day everyone is talking only about his abusive statements, and nobody is talking about the actual gig or about Universal Themes [Laura Snapes’s comments on the issue are here].

If I were allowed a meeting with Mark Kozelek, I would only have one question I really want to ask him, and that is: why? Why ruin everything? Silence would have been better, it would be better to let the music do the talking. Great music, by the way, terrible banter on stage. Or maybe we, the audience, are the problem or at least part of the problem? Do we expect the impossible from our idols, to be better than us? Creativity rarely coincides with a personality that is decent, kind, intelligent, profound or politically correct. Mark Kozelek is not the exception.

Setlist

  1. Mariette (Mark Kozelek & Desertshore cover)
  2. Micheline
  3. Hey You Bastards I’m Still Here (Mark Kozelek & Desertshore cover)
  4. Carissa
  5. Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes
  6. The Possum
  7. Ali/Spinks 2
  8. He Always Felt Like Dancing (Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle cover)
  9. I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same
  10. Dogs
  11. Little Rascals
  12. This Is My First Day and I’m Indian and I Work at a Gas Station
  13. (Encore) I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love
  14. Caroline (Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle cover)
  15. Ceiling Gazing (Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle cover)

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