Opening with “God Bless Ohio”, a ten minute ramble about place, childhood and mortality, Sun Kil Moon’s latest album offers no great surprises. For listeners familiar with the morbid, grumpy output of main man Mark Kozelek, this record will play as a ramping-up of his more idiosyncratic, obsessive tendencies and a near total abandonment of his sweet, melodic side. This is a double album, with track length averaging seven minutes – an intimidating prospect for anyone who isn’t already a die-hard fan, especially considering that violent death (murder, terrorist attacks) is the dominating lyrical theme [“Bastille Day”; “Bergen to Trondheim”].
Musically, this album is fairly unengaging. Kozelek’s deft, Spanish-flavoured folk guitar is notably absent from most tracks, replaced by repetitive percussion and very little melodic variation. There are some interesting elements – the instrumentation is a lot more varied than on past albums, with growling basslines, electronic breaks and even some recurring jazz-based harmonic material here and there. The sketchy, impressionistic feel of the music, especially when paired with Kozelek’s speaking voice, is reminiscent of Eels in their less pop-y moments [Sarah Lawrence College Song]. Despite these tidbits of intrigue, the music isn’t particularly appealing. It feels like Kozelek wanted to break away from the pretty, melodic guitar hooks of previous albums, but did so without really committing to anything else.
However, most of the listener’s attention is consumed by Kozelek’s vocals, which take the form of a tired, rough-edged drawl, occasionally insistent but more often lacking conviction, despite the vehement tone of his lyrics. The sweetness of his singing voice peeks through every now and then on choruses, but for most of the album he sounds like he is too fatigued by the weight of his morose subject matter to really sing. His extensive use of slant-rhyme is somewhat awkward, but strangely trancelike, carrying the listener easily through each meandering song [“Window Sash Weights”; “God Bless Ohio”].
His storytelling is the main appeal here, and the primary lyrical narratives are supplemented with skits and spoken parts, which definitely add something to his formula. His offbeat (some would say offensive…) humour is given free reign, with one notable skit on “Philadelphia Cop”, where he sends up music journalists, providing welcome comic relief. Much like in his live act, the laughter elicited by his gags is in equal parts at him, with him and at ourselves. There’s an alarmingly straightforward spoken interval on “Chili Lemon Peanuts”, where he addresses his girlfriend. In a voice that sounds like a scared child talking to his mother, he asks: “where will our final goodbye be? […] Are we even sure we’ll be in the same place when one of us has to go? I don’t like goodbyes.” While this vulnerability is not new for Kozelek, the lack of musical accompaniment and the fact it that seems to disrupt the flow of the song heightens its effect.
The slightly experimental feel of this album results in some misses as well as hits, and the sheer length of it means the listener will have to work hard to extract the moments of value. One senses Kozelek is well aware of this, with a track near the end of the album titled “Vague Rock Song”. However, it serves as a worthwhile addition to Sun Kil Moon’s collection of albums, and will doubtlessly reward repeated listening from those who invest their time in it.