I was over the Uncut website and I came across John Mulvey’s list of his favourite albums of the first six months of 2017. I like John Mulvey and his writing. This time, though, I was struck by the fact that the list included 60 albums, now increased to 66. With 26 weeks in the first six months of the year or just over 180 days, he has included on average about 2.5 favourite albums per week or one about every three days. Now, let’s assume that he has left the same number of albums off his list. This means he has devoted quality listening time to about five albums a week, or one for every day and a bit. In fact, this figure is a little generous, because there aren’t very many releases in the first couple of weeks of January. Now, John Mulvey is a professional music journalist. He listens to music for a living. It’s his job to spot good music quickly and he’s good at it. All the same, my guess is that he has devoted at most about a day’s listening to the albums he’s calling his favourites of the first half of 2017. That’s not very much.
Here are my top five albums of the year so far. They are all cherished listens. And quite some time has been spent with them. What’s more, last weekend saw the release of three albums – Fleet Foxes, Jason Isbell, and Kevin Morby – that are all candidates for a top five spot. But I’m still getting to know them. So, I’m not going to include them here. Maybe they’ll feature in December’s end-of-year list? In the meantime, here’s my summer solstice favourites.
Conor Oberst – Salutation
Ryan Adams – The Prisoner
Holy Holy – Paint
Frontier Ruckus – Enter The Kingdom
Jesu & Sun Kil Moon – 30 Seconds to the Decline of Planet Earth
Jesu & Sun Kil Moon – 30 Seconds To The Decline Of Planet Earth
Over his last few albums, Mark Kozelek has taken to incorporating fan letters into his songs. On his new album there’s just one. But the fan – Greg – really nails what makes Kozelek’s recent run of albums so great. “In the last few years”, Greg writes, “there’s been increasingly less and less distance between Mark’s experiences and the words that he writes, leaving the emotions uncovered and there for us all to tap into”. It’s well put and presumably Mark thinks so too. Like those other records, 30 Seconds … is yet another set of songs that rarely leave you indifferent. For sure, they can make you feel slightly uncomfortable. “Ask all the questions you want to and I’ll be polite, but I’m thinking fuck you ninety percent of the time”. They can also be plain funny, “After the show I’ll be back in my hotel room wackin’ my bone all alone, ’cause I’m nearly 50 and that’s just the way the wind blows”. But most of all there’s the sense of melancholy. The thought of what the future holds, “I’m feeling a little blue but not nearly as blue as I’ll be”, he says talking of his father, “when I won’t be able to call you”. And the sad stuff that’s in the present, “I couldn’t stop thinking of my sick friend, I was so distracted that I ended up leaving my wallet behind at a bank”. Once again, all of human life is here. There’s a song about visiting Laurie Anderson’s apartment, plenty of talk about Caroline and touring, a couple of references to Trump, a vignette about a show at SXSW, and mentions of cops, waiters, fans, and many more. And the music’s not too bad either.
There’s no artist quite like Mark Kozelek at the moment. He’s not so much producing albums as presenting us with a series of personal journal entries. We get the exact dates and times of when he’s writing the lyrics. ‘Beautiful You’, August 31st 2015, 2.36 pm. We get updates on his various projects. It turns out that most of his scenes from the film he told us about in the last album ended up being cut. We check in with his family. His father’s doing OK, which is good to hear. He reads us a couple of fan letters. We get a hint of his reaction when he learns that Pitchfork only gave him a miserly 6.0 for Universal Themes. “What took them so long?”. It’s all so intimate, it’s like catching up with an old friend. But it’d all be merely a post-modern, internet-age trope if it wasn’t for the quality of the work. This album comes with some of Mark Kozelek’s most gut-wrenching lyrics, even by the standards of his recent material. On ‘Fragile’, we learn of his reaction to the death of Chris Squire. We get to hear a lot about how important Yes were to him, which is sort of interesting. But it’s when he makes the link between Chris Squire and Christopher, his teenage friend who had leukaemia, that things get really chokey. Yet even that pales next to ‘Exodus’. Referencing Nick Cave, Mike Tyson and Danielle Steel, he sends his love to all bereaved parents. It’s utterly respectful when name-checking the celebrities. Again, though, things soon get personal. Carissa, from Benji, his friend Chris, who we’ve just heard about, Katy, his ex-girlfriend, who’s present on almost every song on the album, his uncle Lenny, whose death we were told about on ‘Brothers’ from the Mark Kozelek and Desertshore album, all of them left behind bereaved parents. And Mark Kozelek shares their pain. He’s not part of the club, but he communicates the feeling of what it means to be a member like no-one else around. And as if that wasn’t enough, and whether it’s composed by him, Jesu, or other friends, some of the music is simply beautiful. For sure, the sludge guitar spoils some the tracks. Maybe it was an unconscious way of getting that 6.0 out of his system, but it doesn’t work. The lyrics get swallowed up. Yet on songs like ‘Father’s Day’, ‘Beautiful You’, and ‘Exodus’ again, the music is almost as unbearable as the lyrics. Mark Kozelek is a unique talent. It’ll be great to catch up with him again in a few months to see where he’s at, to find out how things are with his family, and to hear more stories about his life.
This is always a really exciting time. A whole year of new releases to be anticipated. We know there’s material forthcoming from Villagers, Eleanor Friedberger, Andrew Bird, Dylan Leblanc, Shearwater, Tindersticks, Lucinda Williams, Sun Kil Moon, and Damien Jurado. There are also rumours of albums from Band of Horses, My Morning Jacket, Robert Ellis, and PJ Harvey. That’s a good start. But there’s much more to hope for. Last year, I was really lucky. Right at the top of my 2015 list was music from Elvis Perkins and Sufjan Stevens and both were kind enough to oblige. So, artists, if you are listening, here’s my wish list for 2016 – Bill Callahan, Phosphorescent, Richmond Fontaine, Anais Mitchell, John Vanderslice, Bon Iver, Kathleen Edwards, Kate Bush, Grizzly Bear and/or Department of Eagles, David Vandervelde, Neko Case, Emmy The Great, Ryan Adams, Feist, Margot & The Nuclear So and So’s, Fionn Regan, Fleet Foxes, and, of course, Kramies. Do please oblige. In the meantime, here is the great one with his classic ‘Sea Otter Cottage’.
Universal Themes. Anyone familiar with Mark Kozelek’s recent work will immediately know what to expect. Death. Unconditional family love. Random unfairness. Before you’d even pressed the play button, you’d know that you were going to hear another bunch of songs about sick relatives and the tragic passing of family members and close friends. You’d know it was to going to be tough, but you’d also know you were going to experience yet another fine album. But you’d be wrong. This is different. Better. This is one of the most outstanding albums of recent times. The universal themes remain, but they’re expressed even more personally than before. And if it’s possible, the result is all the more affecting. Sure, there are new stories of third-party tragedy and loss. But without belittling them, they’re not the most important part of the album this time. “I’m gonna tell you a little story here because well what the heck”, he tells us in almost throwaway manner on ‘Cry Me a River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues’. Instead, more than ever, the universal can be found in the very local. The everyday. The mundane. “As I walk around the block you live on I see poetry on every inch of it”. There are plenty of examples. The dying possum under the air conditioner. The minnow bucket on a fishing trip. But there’s more to this album than a series of personal reflections. There’s a philosophy. And on ‘Garden of Lavender’ it’s expressed perhaps most clearly. “My heart is drawn to the small, out of the way things that I can’t help but to give my focus and attention and care, ’cause they shut off what hijacks my brain, and help to tune out what can cause me pain”. The songs are full of pointillistic little details to illustrate the principle. The film-set grind. The brief encounters. Across the album, we hear what hijacks Mark Kozelek’s brain. We see how he shuts it out. And in so doing, we experience it too. And as if that wasn’t enough, what’s truly amazing is how the music captures this philosophy too. The songs are consistently being chopped up. So on ‘With a Sort of Grace I Walked to the Bathroom to Cry’, a classic grungy riff is suddenly broken off, only to be replaced by a fragile, haunting little melody. It’s as if he’s been drawn to small out of the way musical themes to help him tune out of what can cause him pain. It’s truly mesmerising. After all all this, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Universal Themes was a miserable listening experience. But it isn’t. There’s real humour. There’s a great anecdote about bumping into Jane Fonda. There’s the admission, in answer to a heckler, that he doesn’t really hate Nels Cline. “His name just rhymed with one word or the other”. There’s also the irony of him going to see a band and complaining that they didn’t play his favourite tunes, “It’s 2012 but I like the ones from 1992”. This from the man with a catalogue going back to 1989, but whose last live album didn’t contain anything before 2010. The whole thing could have been a complete mess. But the images are beautifully knitted together across the set of songs. Details about the trip to Flims, Switzerland, the kitty cats, the visit to Cleveland, and plenty of others keep cropping up over the length of the album. Mark Kozelek’s new release is a highly personal creation. But it’s full of universal themes. Truly the wonder of life prevails.
Not to be left behind, here are my favourite albums of 2014. A warning to those with a sensitive disposition. This selection includes some truly miserable albums. Ah, bliss.
Dan Michaelson and the Coastguards – Distance
Dan Michaelson is probably the best purveyor of down-at-luck-yet-still-with-the-strength-to-get-out-of-bed-in-the-morning songs around at the moment. This was yet another wonderful album in that vein. And he topped off the year with a Christmas song. A depressing one, of course.
Adrian Crowley – Some Blue Morning
Adrian Crowley can certainly clear a room at parties. Yet Some Blue Morning found him in a surprisingly upbeat mood. These things are relative, though. Put on the magnificent ‘The Wild Boar’ and watch the queue for the bathroom grow.
Sun Kil Moon – Benji
Not quite as memorable as last year’s collaborative affairs. A little more bitter and the first half of ‘Dogs’ should have had a R rating. But throughout it all the humanity shines through. And ‘I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same’ was an absolute classic.
Margot & The Nuclear So And So’s – Slingshot To Heaven
A resounding ‘return to form’ for Margot and her gang of glow-in-the-dark chums. Beautiful melodies about the human condition delivered in a sad and slightly world-weary way. There is simply no better recipe for a great album.
Conor Oberst – Upside Down Mountain
The boy genius returned with an album full of wonderful songs. From the rousing ‘Governor’s Ball’ to the contemplative ‘Common Knowledge’. And on this album he was patched up with the help of First Aid Kit. It only made things sound better still.
Mark Kozelek is no stranger to live records. In the last two years alone, he’s put out live albums recorded in Sweden, Australia, China, and Denmark. True, some of these releases are bonus discs available only through Caldo Verde Records. But that’s not counting earlier live material monikered as Mark Kozelek or Sun Kil Moon. Now, there’s a new release. This one was recorded in Italy in April this year. So, what’s different? Well, with one exception it contains only songs from very recent studio albums. There are six from Benji released earlier this year; two from the album with Desertshore from August last year; three from Perils From The Sea with Jimmy Lavalle from April 2013; and two from Among The Leaves from May 2012. The exception is ‘Ålesund’ from 2010’s Admiral Fell Promises, which to be fair is hardly delving deep into his back catalogue. In fact, at one point he announces that he’s going to playing a track from an old, old album. “It came out about a year and a half ago”, he jokes. So, while the traditional cry at gigs might be ‘play some old’, Mark Kozelek has been on such a creative run of late that for once ‘play some new’ is really welcome. What’s also welcome is that it’s just him and his guitar(s). That’s nothing new for Kozelek. In fact, some of his best tracks of late have told the story of him lugging his guitars round from venue to venue, playing solo shows. ‘By The Time That I Awoke’ from Perils From The Sea, being one of the most memorable. But while his gigging has been solo, his most recent albums have been mainly collaborative. So, here we get a chance to hear different versions of his new songs. Perhaps the best ones are from Perils From The Sea. There, keyboards and synths dominated. Here, songs like ‘Gustavo’ and ‘Ceiling Gazing’ maintain their melody, but come across in a new fashion. So, that’s new versions of really new songs. That’s good. Thoughtful. In the end, this album nicely captures a particularly fruitful period in Mark Kozelek’s musical life. Oh and by the way, there’s a Christmas album scheduled for release in November.
Mark Kozelek delivered two of the finest albums of 2013. The first in conjunction with Jimmy Lavalle. The second with Desertshore. Both were full of beautiful songs, with sad but not depressing lyrics. “Somehow the wonder of life prevails”. Only a few months later, he’s back again. This time he’s largely by himself and performing under his Sun Kil Moon moniker. The album has received some of the best reviews of his career. Pitchfork awarded it a 9.2. The Line of Best Fit gave it 9/10. The Guardian called it “utterly riveting”. So, what’s the problem? Well, in one way, nothing. The lyrics are as a powerful, poignant, funny, moving, intimate and, yes, as crushingly sad as usual. Whether it’s the story of him being afraid of an albino in kindergarten and that evening his Dad putting on an Edgar Winter album to reassure him, or him simply encouraging us to remember “the families that lost so much in Newtown”. Whether it’s about how he confesses that he won’t have the courage to sort through his mother’s things when she passes, or how he recounts multiple deaths of second cousins, uncles, grandparents, friends, innocent victims, and serial killers. Every story is touching. Utterly riveting indeed. And, at times, the delivery is also captivating. ‘I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same’ is wistful and tender. And on tracks such as ‘Dogs’ and the beginning of ‘Ben’s My Friend’ there’s more of the wonderful rap-style of singing that he’s recently perfected. But something doesn’t fully work this time. Maybe it’s because the previous albums were collaborations, but the songs on Perils From The Sea and the Desertshore album just sounded better. More melodious. Here, some of tracks lack imagination. ‘I Love My Dad’ chugs along to the most primitive beat. ‘Jim Wise’ tinkles unremarkably. And on ‘Ben’s My Friend’ the saxophones actually spoil the delivery of some of the great lines towards the end of the song. Mark Kozelek is a poet. On ‘Carissa’ he even describes his words in that way. And he’s someone who delivers his poetry through music. There are times, even on this album, when the mixture of the two is almost unbearably beautiful. But here, there are also times when the music lets them down a little. With luck, though, another album will come along later in the year. And the thought of that is still something to savour.