On a dreary Thursday night at Warsaw, Greenpoint’s opulent Polish banquet hall cum indie music venue, Sun Kil Moon and British experimental rockers, Jesu, played a three plus hour set to a somewhat sparse, but entirely rapt audience.
Sun Kil Moon, the musical moniker for Mark Kozelek, and Jesu, lead by frontman, Justin Broadrick, last played New York City in February, the only stop on an international tour following the January release of their collaborative album, Jesu/Sun Kil Moon. Their recent return featured much of the material from that release, interspersed with a couple of tracks from a new album they’re working on, which will be out in Spring of 2017.
In all of his artistic incarnations, Mark Kozelek is a complex character. For one, his sense of humor can be particularly caustic, and he’s known for unapologetically voicing his opinions, even when (especially when) they go against popular opinion. To fans, that’s no real shock, so even when his ire seemed directed at the very people who paid money and stood listening to him for over three full hours– from “Cry Me A River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues,” a song from 2015’s Universal Themes included early in his set, to comments like, “here I am in whatever fucking hipster town in Brooklyn”– the audience cheers and claps and takes it in stride. It’s just part of the experience.
In fact, to his fans, it’s a breath of fresh air, and Kozelek is a kind of Preacher, almost, attracting a cult-like fanbase, particularly amongst millennials, who are so often steeped in Snapchat filters and posturing for likes on social media. And for every major or minor object of his ire– Primus, clickbait, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and, according to new track, “He’s Bad,” Michael Jackson—there’s the contradiction of the sweeping, generous, heartfelt songs themselves, which in their obsessive narration of the quotidian, are made incandescent, almost prayer-like, bolstered by the Jesu’s intense drone and delivered in Kozelek’s sad, reverential, half-growling style. Choruses are hard to come by, but take a song like “Good Morning My Love,” where a stream of consciousness recounting of listening to voicemails and thinking about boxing matches becomes confessional and kind; “I love singing and making people laugh and making sure my band gets paid,” he half shouted, half sung until he was hoarse.
Kozelek is always the narrator, and he shares deeply personal, painful intimacies in his stories, from watching his father age to taking an old friend, now a junkie, to Disney World. He leaps between states and countries and people and places in the travelogue of his work, but he also casts his net outwards into larger ruminations on the state of the world, with one particularly affecting song on gun violence, “Bergen to Trondheim,” the title referring to the travel route he was on when he found out about the Pulse nightclub shooting in Florida. “How is this world so beautiful and simultaneously a piece of shit? It’s like a box of chocolates right? You don’t know what you’re gonna get,” he sang wryly. He felt obligated to sing about gun violence, he told the crowd, if he didn’t, he would be a “fucking loser.”
The show was beset with audio issues, which gave Kozelek ample opportunity to riff and chat with the audience in between — and sometimes during — songs while tech guys worked to fix bad feedback, broken amps and a slew of other dilemmas. During one of these informal Q&As, my partner (he’s part of the aforementioned cult), sidled up to the stage and told him that Leonard Cohen died; news had broken via social media half an hour into the show. This promoted Kozelek to perform an a capella rendition of “Famous Blue Raincoat,” which left myself and several of those around me in tears.
There were plenty of moments during the set when, against my will, tears flowed free and fast. Sun Kil Moon and Jesu’s set was by turns comical and cathartic, but always raw. For the final song, “Exodus,” which Kozelek wrote upon the death of Nick Cave’s son, he led us in a hushed singalong that floated through the air and became a larger call for peace; “for all bereaved parents, I send you my love.”
For the encore, Kozelek called everyone left in close, and the group performed “Beautiful You,” a 20 minute long recounting of four days between late August and early September of last year. Out of the ordinary recollections emerged a kind of incantation, a reminder to stay present, keep our eyes and ears open. “Everything I have been through,” Kozelek sang, “has led me to this beautiful piece of music.”