Mark Kozelek

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There’s nothing more thrilling than taking a sly peek inside a diary that someone has left lying around. Just a few furtive glances before they come back into the room. It gives you a glimpse into their innermost thoughts, their mind, their soul. It’s thrilling. There’s scarcely anything less exciting, though, than someone offering you their diary to read. The entries seem banal, humdrum, everyday. How could it be otherwise? Why would anyone let you read their diary if the entries were anything other than that? When Mark Kozelek started his new musical style around the time of Perils From The Sea with Jimmy LaValle, it was as if he had distractedly left his personal journal on the bedside table. Suddenly, we got the chance to get a brief glimpse inside his head. It was thrilling. Over the course of a few albums, we came to know his deepest feelings about his father, his girlfriend, his cat. It was so thrilling that even the expressions of boredom became somehow compelling. The long flights. The drudgery of touring. But then the experience changed. As album followed album in quick succession, what were once intimate insights seemed more like meaningless meanderings. The subjects remained the same, but the entries became banal, humdrum, everyday. The solution is to put the journal down and go listen to something else for a while. If that’s context in which you find yourself putting on Mark Kozelek’s new album, then it’s a delight. Prettier sounding than some of his recent outings, it’s a window into his innermost thoughts, his mind, his soul. His dad’s still there. His girlfriend. His pets. He tells us what DVDs he watches and when. So, if you’re discovering Mark Kozelek’s new style for the first time, or if you’ve taken some time off and are coming back, then enjoy his new album. It’s thrilling.

Sun Kil Moon – Universal Themes

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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.

Consequence of Sound review

Paste review

The AV Club review

Mark Kozelek – Live at Biko

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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.

Pitchfork review

Sun Kil Moon – Benji

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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.

Pitchfork review

The Line of Best Fit review

Consequence of Sound review

Music OMH review

Spin review

Here’s the final instalment of my favourite albums of 2013.

Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle – Perils from the Sea

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This album was full of characters. Gustavo, the illegal immigrant. J H Park, the flight attendant. His dad. His sister. There was death. Break ups. Touring. The usual. But through it all, magnificently, “the wonder of life prevailed”.

Bill Callahan – Dream River

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This was Bill Callahan’s happy album. At times he seemed almost contented. It’s all relative, of course. “You looked like world-wide Armageddon while you slept” is his form of a compliment. And sitting on a barstool uttering only the words “Beer … Thank you … Beer … Thank you” is about as close as you’re likely to come to a conversation. Few could get away with it, but Bill Callahan certainly can.

Kurt Vile – Wakin On A Pretty Daze

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Song after song with the same tone. The same mood. The same sound. Chilled out. Laid back. Confident. Kurt Vile pulled off a great trick of turning in a really disciplined and coherent album that still totally relaxed and spontaneous. It was an album that you wanted to go on for hours and hours. And with the arrival of the deluxe edition, it did.

Phosphorescent – Muchacho

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Much was made of Matthew Houck’s new-found love of electronica. But he blended it beautifully with Phosphorescent’s signature-style, slightly off-kilter americana. There were the usual yips. Raggedy guitars. Head-scratching song titles. But most of all there were great melodies and an extra dimension to the sound.

Arctic Monkeys – AM

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There were no frills, no flourishes to this version of the Arctic Monkeys. The sound was slinky, sexy, groovy. The themes were late night. Lonely. But then up popped Arabella with her “interstellar-gator skin boots” and “Barbarella silver swimsuit”. Oh, being a rock superstar is such hell.

Welcome to part 2 of the best albums of 2013, AKA the miserable 5.

Dan Michaelson & The Coastguards – Blindspot

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The gravel-voiced Gollum of gloom returns with an album so downer-sounding it’s positively uplifting. After all, at least you get to realise that someone out there is worse off than you. While poor old Dan and his Coastguards give the impression they’re about to hit the rocks any day soon, they tell their stories with such a delicate beauty that you can’t help but want to throw them a lifeline. Sure, they’d probably drop it anyway.

Mark Kozelek & Desertshore

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Just when you’ve managed to come to terms with the ultra-miserabilist themes of the new Mark Kozelek album, doesn’t he go and release a second one. Kick a man when he’s down, why don’t you? If it wasn’t so freaking affecting. If it didn’t sound so darn beautiful. Well, you’d have reason to be resentful. Instead, you put ‘Brothers’ on repeat and wonder how anyone write a song quite so emotional.

Alela Diane – About Farewell

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Alela Diane writes about the pain of breaking up. The anger of having wasted part of a life. And the excitement of starting afresh. Well, two out of three ain’t bad. There’s plenty of unfinished business at the end of this particular journey. It’s tough to listen to a first-hand account of the break-up of a marriage. But hopefully the process of writing was cathartic and with luck we might yet get to hear the part about starting afresh.

Jason Isbell – Southeastern

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Jason Isbell is an interloper. He’s got over his troubles. Kicked his destructive habits. But, thankfully for the rest of us, he can remember just enough of his dark days to tell some great stories. And he recounts them with tremendous verve and panache. This is a songwriter at the absolute top of his game. An album full of great songs with wonderful hooks and lovely arrangements.

Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You

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There are times on this album when Neko sounds really angry. She’s had a difficult time recently and sometimes it shows. When she sings about murdering a man by shooting him through his jelly eye, you start to smile politely and back away. But don’t go too far. There’s plenty here to keep you amused and entertained.

Mark Kozelek & Desertshore

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We are truly blessed. Two original Mark Kozelek albums within the space of a couple of months. They sound gloriously different. The collaboration with Jimmy Lavalle of Album Leaf was sparser, more electronic, whereas here the sound is traditionally Kozelesque. The most noticeable variation, though, is the pace. On Perils From The Sea, the songs were slow, the shortest clocking in at 5 minutes 10. Here, though, the speed can be veritably breakneck with five songs registering 3 minutes 45 or less and they’re none the worse for that. While there are differences, there are plenty of common features too. Both albums have songs about the death of close friends, not least the moving mention of the late Jason Molina on ‘Sometimes I Can’t Stop’. Both include tracks about the life on the road. This time around ‘Katowice or Cologne’ captures at once the total exhilaration and also the utter ennui of a touring musician. And, tellingly, both namecheck members of his family. We’re reacquainted, and once again in the fondest terms, with his sister and his niece. We also get to know more about his father. On the previous outing, we heard about his grandpa’s funeral, which was the “first and the last time” he saw his Dad cry. Here, on ‘Brothers’, we’re told about the death of three of his father’s siblings, Lenny at Pearl Harbor, Billy in 1989, and Bobby in late 2012. While it’s moving enough to hear of how his mother “put a gold star in the window and waited and waited for [Lenny] to come home but he never ever ever ever showed”, it just sets the scene for the last verse. “I’ll miss him like hell”, he sings about his 80-year-old Dad, “when I can no longer hear the sound, Of his voice giving me advice and telling me the latest news, When we can’t sit around and watch old movies in his living room”. Like the previous outing, though, there’s absolutely nothing morbid about this album. On ‘Tavoris Cloud’ he recounts yet another death, but this time it’s his cat who, he tells us, slipped off to “kitty heaven”. On ‘Livingstone Bramble’ he brags about how he can play the guitar like Neil Young and tells us how he hates Eric Clapton and Nels Cline. In fact, he tells us how he hates Nels Cline three times. It’s genuinely funny. Two collaborations. Two different sounds. But just one Mark Kozelek. And one is just right.

Pitchfork review

Uncut review

Allmusic review