Mark Kozelek has officially abandoned all pretense. He’s no longer a songwriter; he’s a blogger with a beat. Even more than last year’s Universal Themes, their extreme experiment in sonic stream of consciousness, Sun Kil Moon’s latest album, a collaboration with ex-Godflesh frontman Justin Broadrick, a.k.a. Jesu, is a mishmash of largely amelodic storytelling, mostly about ostensible day-to-day mundanities, and barebones musical backing that sounds like it was cooked up in an NPR laboratory.
Not that there isn’t an appeal to this approach. Since Kozelek’s wordsmithing presently amounts to conversational rambling about mostly the same stuff he’s been conversationally rambling about on his last couple of albums (his relationship with his girlfriend, the documentaries he’s been watching, life on tour), listeners are afforded the privilege—or the misfortune, depending on your tolerance for Kozelek’s voice and prickly personality—to essentially keep up with his daily life and random ruminations, the same way one would with an old friend on Facebook. If you’re expecting melody, you’re out of luck; “Father’s Day” has a little bit of a jaunty chorus going on, but otherwise, any hooks on the album are minimalist at best, like the three-note refrain (“What does rekindle mean”) of lead single “Good Morning My Love.”
But if you’re willing to revel in Kozelek’s diary entry-style lyricism (literally, as Kozelek begins several verses by noting the date), the lack of melodicism ceases to matter any more than it does that Marc Maron or Dan Savage don’t croon their way through their podcasts. And regardless of how they’re delivered, many of Kozelek’s lyrics invite emotional investment. “Fragile” is an earnestly touching rumination on the recent death of Yes bassist Chris Squire, wherein Kozelek recounts the profound ways in which Squire’s music has impacted his life. However, when Kozelek is compelled to fill up 80 minutes of running time with one observation, diatribe, and digression after another, some of what he fills it with can feel unbearably self-absorbed; in no less than two songs, Kozelek stops to read letters he received from sycophantic fans about how great he is and how his critics, also known as “the hipsters who only like you because of Benji,” are all idiots.
The success or failure of each of the album’s songs largely hinges not on whether Kozelek’s babbling is charming or not.
The success or failure of each of the album’s songs largely hinges not on whether Kozelek’s babbling is charming or not, but on the backing Broadrick supplies for him, which is effective when it’s mostly textural, unobtrusive, and deferential to the vocals, and grating when it isn’t. On one hand, as a result of Broadrick’s heavy involvement, Jesu/Sun Kil Moon has a far broader musical range than previous Sun Kil Moon efforts—only “Fragile” features a stripped-down guitar arrangement of the sort that Kozelek fans have by now grown used to. However, range alone isn’t worth much when it expands beyond the limits of good taste.
The album starts off with three “rock” songs in a row, which just means that Broadrick alternates between what sounds like the same exact basic power chords and rudimentary arpeggios at an agonizing crawl with a hideously processed industrial guitar tone that’s just loud enough to drown out Kozelek, thus negating any chance the songs had of landing. The aural effect, especially on the stomping “Carondelet,” is that of a screeching subway ride featuring a drunken, agitated homeless guy ranting incomprehensibly at the other end of the car.
Mercifully, Broadrick sticks largely to the lighter, electronics-focused accompaniment of most of the rest of the album. It doesn’t always work: Closer “Beautiful You” is a synth-based ambient piece that sounds dreamy and pleasant for the first few moments, but is preposterously dull and overlong at 14 minutes. But Broaderick’s stuttering drum loop and bleeping synth line make “Last Night I Rocked the Room Like Elvis and Had Them Laughing Like Richard Pryor” effectively upbeat, while the piano-based arrangement on “Exodus,” on which Kozelek sings about the tragic death of Nick Cave’s son, is morose and emotionally evocative, sounding almost like something Cave himself could have written. Still, while taking Kozelek out of his musical comfort zone at times pays off with interesting results on Jesu/Sun Kil Moon, other parts of the album makes one wonder if Kozelek wasn’t better off continuing to pick away at his nylon string guitar and ramble away like usual.