Mark Kozelek & The Death Of The Author

In his 1967 essay, ‘The Death of the Author’, Roland Barthes argued that disassociating a text from its creator provides a far richer experience than trying to position it on an individual’s timeline, whereby the writer “maintains with his work the same relation of antecedence a father maintains with his child.” He observed that critics prefer such connection as it provides a route to understanding or unearthing the ‘true’ meaning of a writer’s work. While such logic can free literature from a variety of associations, its hard to conceive of a world in which one might read ‘The Bell Jar’ without being fascinated by the context of its conception, or of the act of picking up a new Martin Amis novel without the overwhelming burden of his smug entitlement weighing down on your enthusiasm. The idealised notion of isolated, oblique consumption is all the more improbable in the never-ending infostream of twenty-first century life.

So often this contextualising works to the artist’s advantage. I’d never have bought ‘Solar’ if I’d actually researched it rather than simply relying on the name Ian McEwan plastered across its cover. I also appear to have the album ‘Diamond Hoo Ha’ in my racks as a consequence of my fondness for Supergrass’ prior work rather than an unlikely desire to hear modernised-glam channeled through a, some might say, bold absence of tunes. However, and let’s take that much admonished genre as a useful reference point, sometimes context can blow everything out of the water. ‘I’m The Leader Of The Gang (I Am)’ was just one of several Gary Glitter songs in the wedding DJ copybook until his gradual dismantling around a lengthy list of sex offences. Whatever the song had meant before, it quickly lost its limited lustre once it came to embody a nation’s disgust at the actions of a pop star.

It seems that certain crimes will make you more prone to a fall from grace than others. Pete Doherty’s self-destructive tendencies seemed to neatly fit the rock’n’roll narrative while Sid Vicious’ arrest for murder doesn’t seem to have tarnished the Sex Pistols’ endlessly reissued legacy. Indeed, John Lennon remains something of a musical deity despite openly admitting to physically abusing women. Clearly, to distort Barthes’ phrasing a little, the death of the artist as a concept is alive and well. If the tunes are good, then plenty of people can see past the person delivering them.

I’m not sure it’s that easy. When 3D from Massive Attack was briefly under suspicion for nefarious internet activity, I found myself wondering if I would ever truly enjoy one of my favourite bands again. If he did x then doesn’t that override whatever y is? The relief felt when he was cleared was purely selfish because I hadn’t wanted to relinquish ‘Blue Lines’ from my life. I’d wondered if I could rationalise a divide, free the music from one of its creators in a way that fans of ‘Hello, Hello, I’m Back Again’ couldn’t. Ultimately, art connects with you in a way that transcends logic and goes straight for the soul. And yet.

When Mark Kozelek began his childishly opportunistic vendetta against The War On Drugs back in September 2014 it was neatly written off as grumpy middle-aged man playing the fool. “It’s what he does!” people cried. Meredith Graves has written far more eloquently than I can on how his ‘diss’ track ‘War On Drugs: Suck My Cock’ appropriates a phrase that faintly conceals something between homophobia and misogyny. It is the very testament of the idea of taking the joke too far. This isn’t repeating the punchline with a warm chuckle to yourself as the rest of your friends humour you and wait for the conversation to move on. This is the sort of grim, base-level embarrassment that leaks out unexpectedly and silences the room. It’s the vitriolic response of someone who claims they’re ‘not bothered’. It’s the sort of rant that almost repels criticism, prompting as it does a cyclical echo-chamber of fuckwits replying that if you don’t like it, you ‘don’t get it’. But for the fact it made for some pretty enticing headlines across the alternative media, it probably should have been the telling sign that Kozelek’s act was wearing thin. However, trying to preserve the power of those Red House Painters records and several of his albums as Sun Kil Moon, I side-stepped it, as so many did.

In the last year or so, Kozelek has uttered numerous comments for which his fans have had to alter their stride, look the other way and take a deep breath. All of which leaves you wondering: why bother? He played near me the other night and I turned down cheap tickets because I was worried he’d disappoint me. I figured an evening of his curdled repartee and I’d be liberating some space in the record racks before long. As it turned out, that show passed without incident but only twenty-four hours later, he opted to kick off his encore to a hitherto rapt audience in London’s Barbican with the kind of misogynistic crap that had social media frothing when it was coming out of Dapper Laughs’ mouth. The latter’s lack of stream-of-consciousness atmospheric eight minute alt-rock songs made him a slightly easier target, but it will be troubling if people aren’t calling Kozelek out for launching into a verbal attack on a British journalist with whom he appears to have a grievance. It prompted another of his wildly ill-advised improvised songs, in which he told those present that the journalist “totally wants to fuck me” and she can “get in line, bitch.” Despite seemingly contradicting the sentiments in the song minutes later, he then proceeded to play it again. There are already those claiming this has been taken out of context and even Kozelek said he was ‘just kidding.’ The violation at the heart of those comments, the reductive belittling of someone’s viewpoint in sexual terms and the utter immaturity in airing this to a paying audience reveals the artist as an unpleasant individual first and musician second.

Is it better to entertain the notion of the ‘death of the author’? To fillet one man’s contribution to the world to obscure the parts of him that are repellent? If I’m already not going to see him in case he offers up a reason to dislike him, then maybe I already have my answer. His comments will have had an unavoidable, involuntary effect on the person concerned as well, one has to hope, on those in attendance and everyone who subsequently hears about it. Rather than needing to be cut some slack, or plying your trade as a rentaquote curmudgeon, Mark, why not just focus on the art that, shorn of bilious context, can offer rare beauty? I can’t imagine I’m the only one who’ll find it even rarer now.

BEST OF 2014: 19. Sun Kil Moon – Benji

When Mark Kozelek started acting particularly dickish in his faux-battle with The War On Drugs, it put an unnecessary tarnish on what has been a remarkably strong eighteen months or so for one of modern music’s most distinctive artists. For a little while thereafter, I struggled to play ‘Benji’, as all of its raw honesty and emotional heft seemed diluted by excessive, impulsive petulance. Everyone remembers the tiresome kid from school who always kept the joke going too long. And if you don’t, I’m afraid it was you. It’s pretty tricky to lecture people about artists wasting their time on Twitter and engaging with fans when you’re churning out limp, sour spoofs whilst trying to convince everyone you’re just being witty. There’s a fascinating interview with Kozelek in the current issue of Uncut where he is clearly trying too hard to prove he’s amiable. That aside, he comes across well and so, coupled with his magically straight Christmas album, it prompted the thaw and returned me to a fascinating record.

19 SKM

What strikes me most about ‘Benji’ is that it’s not a welcoming listen. I’m not simply saying that an album largely concerned with death isn’t a cheery prospect; that was said in more hyperbolic and asinine fashion elsewhere. The subject matter is rather less claustrophobic than the presentation of some of these songs. Whether it’s the spoken-sung ‘I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same’ where the vocal seems to be only a passing acquaintance of the music behind it or ‘Richard Ramirez Died Today Of Natural Causes’ with its multiple, out-of-sync vocal parts in its latter stages, it’s occasionally hard to escape the sense that we might be The War On Drugs in all of this.

And yet, it’s fascinating. For the uninitiated, these are songs largely built around acoustic guitar and delivered via a weathered, withering voice that has never before sounded quite so human. There’s more than a little wry humour in these lyrics and the subject matter is, as I said, far easier to deal with than some would have you believe. Indeed, the moment this album first clicked with me was across the course of a Sunday afternoon in February spent painting the walls and ceiling of our kitchen. I was left to my own devices and had the iPod plugged into an emulsion-specked and aerial-deficient portable hi-fi. The remarkable storytelling was a genuinely moving accomplice for those few hours as it looped around. With any frustrations taken out on cutting in and fiddly spots above the cupboards, these songs got a free pass straight through and they hit deep. ‘Pray For Newtown’ has, rightly, attracted plenty of praise, navigating a catalogue of grim episodes involving gun violence through a very particular, occasionally cavalier, narrative voice. It was the moment during the first play through when I knew this record would endure, no matter how wilfully obtuse it may be.

When compiling this list, ‘Benji’ was the one album which bounced all over the place before finally residing in nineteenth place. I still don’t really know what I think of it, but I know that I want to keep spending time with it, and that’s got to be a good thing, right? Oh, and to give the aspiring King of Comedy his due, the musical joke in ‘I Love My Dad’ at Nels Cline‘s expense is actually pretty funny.

18. Sun Kil Moon–Admiral Fell Promises

Best of 2010The double-tracked mournful voice is one of the more mesmerising tricks in music. Mark Kozelek is one of the absolute masters of this and ‘Admiral Fell Promises’, a solo album in all but name, is one man, one guitar and two vocal tracks deployed to wonderful effect. Having previously released music under his own name and been the founding figure of the sublime Red House Painters, Kozelek has, since 2002, been operating within the confines of Sun Kil Moon. Previous albums ‘Ghosts Of The Great Highway’ and ‘April’ have been Neil Young evoking bursts of vintage Americana, the latter comprised of many songs not unfamiliar with the ten minute mark.


While these songs are hardly short – six of the ten clock in past six minutes – the sound of ‘Admiral Fell Promises’ feels far more open, at least in part due to the sheer amount of space created by stripping back almost all of what was there before. ‘You Are My Sun’ is as bare and beautiful as you might imagine, and worth celebrating for the magical couplet: “You are a friend in the shadows there to bring when I need, you are the suites of cellos there to mend if I bleed.”

Truth be told, the Sun Kil Moon track I have perhaps loved more than any other this year, even ‘You Are My Sun’, is a ridiculously enjoyable cover of ‘I’ll Be There’ by The Jackson 5. Only two minutes and twenty seconds long, it recasts it in similarly sparse clothes to all of ‘Admiral Fell Promises’ and demonstrates not only that it is and always has been a great song, but also that Kozelek’s abilities as an interpreter are a match for his skills as a songwriter.  You can get in on the bonus ‘I’ll Be There’ which comes free with purchases of the album from direct from the Caldo Verde label.