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Sun Kil Moon - This Is My Dinner Music Album Reviews

Mark Kozelek’s latest diary entry of an album amounts to a rote and barely listenable slog of hackneyed impersonations, petty grievances, and prideful nostalgia.

Someday soon, Mark Kozelek might write a gorgeous tune about exactly how miserable he has been for the last four years. In February 2014, Kozelek released Benji, an exquisite album that guided a lifetime of riverine melancholy into a pool of intimacy and empathy. He spun the details of his life into gold, turning idle thoughts about Led Zeppelin into an anthem for outsiders or a trip to a Postal Service show into a wry reflection on aging. The record sparked a renaissance for the former Red House Painter, who, in the previous decade, had made his most notable music by singing the songs of others.

Kozelek has long been notorious for scolding talkative crowds and fans who stared at their cell phones as he sang, but, amid that revival, something seemed to crack in an irreparable way. He soon called a North Carolina festival crowd hillbillies and demanded they shut the fuck up, sang new songs that called two female music journalists bitches for doing their jobs, and wrote a tune called ”War on Drugs: Suck My Cock” after he overheard what he dubbed their “beer-commercial lead-guitar shit” during his own festival set. Meanwhile, he made two new Sun Kil Moon albums that took the popularity of Benji as a license to tell us everything about his life. More diary extracts with soundtracks than proper albums, 2015’s Universal Themes and last year’s Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood were painfully mundane, non-transcendent documents of Kozelek’s touring existence and his confessed obsessions.

This Is My Dinner, Kozelek’s third album as Sun Kil Moon since Benji, is at once the apogee of that approach and the nadir of his career. It is a day-by-day, flight-by-flight, fit-by-fit chronicle of a 2017 European tour that amounts to a rote and barely listenable slog of hackneyed impersonations, petty grievances, and prideful nostalgia. Kozelek speaks, sings, and sighs 8,000 words across 90 minutes in an authoritative display of musical manspreading, built on Kozelek’s fundamental belief that everything that happens to him, from the disappointment of a canceled tour stop to the elation of great Italian food, is worthy of the world’s attention. Assuredly, it is not.

Kozelek isn’t the only songwriter who has had success with this mode of exhibitionist expression, of course, where the tiniest detail or circumstance plucked from day-to-day activity can offer an unexpected insight about life, loss, or emotion at large. After the death of his wife, Geneviève Castrée, Phil Elverum turned the act of taking out the day’s garbage into a moment of quiet desolation—and a jolting reminder as to why he had to keep going. Last year, Julie Byrne used the image of crossing the western United States to express a core of existential restlessness. Vivid songwriting, whether hip-hop or country, can hinge on these lived-in details. But during This Is My Dinner, Kozelek treats his songs like status updates on a Facebook account he again tells us he does not have. You often hear about bands leaving room for the singer, building up the lyrics rather than blocking them out. In this case, you wish that Kozelek had left any space at all for what sounds like a subtle, sophisticated backing crew, anchored by the expressive drumming of the Dirty Three’s Jim White. But, no: This is about Kozelek.

Recent themes return—Kozelek’s travels of Portugal and Norway, his anxiety over mass shootings, his subservience to his moods, how he understands pain better than the rest of us, his issues with his dad, how much meaning he extracts from boxers. What’s different here, though, is just how much we learn about Kozelek’s former virility and how losing it seems more bitter than sweet. He tells us about the time a promoter called him indie rock’s Wilt Chamberlain, the basketball star who claims to have slept with 20,000 women. He tries to dazzle with bygone tales of all the ménages à trois he’s had in Copenhagen and how he just doesn’t need them anymore. He vividly recounts escaping down frigid Oslo streets after a fan’s boyfriend caught her giving him a handjob and sucking his thumb. “When you’re in your 20s, in my opinion, nothing should be off limits,” Kozelek, 51, sings. Listening to This Is My Dinner is like going to a 25-year-high-school reunion and sitting beside the sad, divorced, and bloated former jock who tells you a dozen times about his game-winning touchdown at homecoming, then winks every time a pretty classmate walks by.

Not too long ago, the party line on Kozelek held that it would be beautiful enough to hear him sing the telephone book. Time and sadness had pockmarked his tenor in ways that conveyed hidden emotion in every word, the way music lurks in the recesses of a record. But here, amid this largely hook-less morass, he sings like even he’s worn out by this mode of maudlin revelation. During the 12-minute “Linda Blair,” he compares the sound of a sick baby on a plane to the possessed Exorcist character, wishes for her health, and then impersonates her cough repeatedly for cheap laughs. Near the song’s end, which you begin to doubt will ever come, he sings a fragment of Queen’s “Somebody to Love” again and again, his voice nearly drowned by the band he’s built, as if he’s given up. During the 13-minute “Soap for Joyful Hands,” he tells us, at length, about how he likes socks, how he washes them in hotel sinks on tour, and how he wrote a “captivating song about washing socks in hotel sinks. Who else can give you that?” In a song that is barely more interesting than the phone book itself, Kozelek sounds listless and bored, his falsetto more juvenile whimper than elegant wisp. Another urban legend, debunked.

Despite this seemingly interminable prosaic mire, there are some affecting moments here, instances where Kozelek’s hyper-specificity is again heartrending. Over seesawing piano, he croons about wishing he’d hugged Elliott Smith the last time he saw him in Sweden. During the title track, he recalls a previous Norwegian tour where he got the news that his cat was dying; he calls the promoter who bought his flight back home so he could kiss her one more time by name, thanking him for that act of kindness, his voice still catching with feeling after all these years.

But then he yells an anecdote about telling an irate fan that he hopes he gets hit by a bus, blaming his outburst on a lack of sleep and demanding a free pass for being an asshole. That sudden pivot illuminates the gulf between honesty and vulnerability, between simply detailing the bad things that happen in your life and actually extracting some self-reflection from them. Kozelek spends most of This Is My Dinner drowning in the divide. Art need not atone for the sins of its creator, of course, but Kozelek sings of his issues and experiences with devilish bemusement, as if he’s telling you this is the way we all should be—unhinged, self-righteous, proud of it. It is, by and large, theater of and for one.

Against all odds, his shuffling ode to “David Cassidy,” written en route to Barcelona the day after “The Partridge Family” star died, is sweet and endearing, a frank confession of inspiration from an unlikely source. What’s more, Kozelek shows some self-awareness here, twice checking himself out loud from indulging the sort of tangents that dilute so much of This Is My Dinner. The tune smartly teases the melody of the “Partridge” theme, “Come on Get Happy,” by nestling it into the guitar’s radiant folds. But then, as though on a dare, Koz & the Boys tack on an unnecessary cover of the song itself, followed by a ragged beer-commercial rendition of AC/DC’s “Rock ‘N’ Roll Singer.” Equally earnest and disdainful, Kozelek holds single notes for 15 seconds, daring you to turn it off. On an album where he seems to delight only in the sound of himself, you don’t need extra encouragement.

The four-year landslide of Kozelek from the heights of Benji to the abyss of This Is My Dinner is a sort of necessary parable for how not to behave in a society where people who are not straight, white, moneyed, old men are getting overdue seats at the table. He insists there is revelatory poignancy and power in the banality of being unpleasant; if there is, it is only by virtue of counterexample, illuminating examples of how not to act in this world. During “Copenhagen,” Kozelek misinterprets innocent conversations with a female fan outside of a venue he’s just played as an invitation to a tryst, then pins the mistake on the woman when he realizes he was wrong. During endlessly episodic opener “This Is Not Possible,” he inconveniences those at his beck and call, musicians or hotel employees who stand idly by or re-fire the stove to make sure he still gets his tagliatelle after a late sleep. And during “Candles,” he scolds the flight attendant who simply asks that he follow the rules and close his laptop before landing, even if he is not done with “this perfect song I was gonna sing to my audience.”

Yes, these are songs, supposed expressions of a character, but they are as artless, discursive, and slapdash as a to-do list or a diary entry; the central character seems to be only a deep sense of self-pity in need of external validation. Kozelek capitalizes on playing the victim, on the theatrics of being lampooned for just telling it like it is, man. For a guy who admits, “My life is pretty good overall” while complaining about, of all things, bicycles in Copenhagen, he sure has a lot of blame to offer for anything that’s not quite copacetic.

These songs are not merely about a European tour; they are about Kozelek’s belief that he is apart from and above the rest of the world. He wants you to listen and feel bad for him, to suffer along with the travails of a moderately successful touring musician who is starting to ponder Viagra as a viable option and (by his own admission, multiple times during This Is My Dinner) cannot figure out anything else to do with his life other than write these long songs. You’ll feel bad, all right, and probably even laugh—but not for the reasons Kozelek hopes. Someday soon, he might write a song about that rejection, too.


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