"Are you talking to me?"

Say cheese!

MARK KOZELEK LIVE AT THE BRONSON CLUB, RAVENNA, ITALY – 5th April 2014

There’s a quiet menace about Mark Kozelek. His songs reveal he’s a sensitive guy but his highly personal, story songs never stray into sentimentalism.

The lyrics are full of the humdrum details from his life at home or on the road yet are delivered with such intensity that they seem positively revelatory.

He sings of being unable to shake his melancholy nature, a condition that I imagine is exacerbated by touring on his own and having time to brood in lonely hotel rooms.

On stage during this two-hour solo performance he’s not ice cold but not warm either. There’s no charm offensive. He seems pissed off that the audience don’t talk to him but doesn’t do much to meet us half way. He doesn’t even know what city he’s playing in so you get the impression that part of him doesn’t give a damn who’s listening and why.

He wonders why there is so much graffiti in Rome but nobody dares venture an opinion as to why Italians are so into street art. In the US, Kozelek says, kids have better things to do; they’re too busy mugging and stabbing people. This is a topic he also touches on in song form in Richard Ramirez Died Of Natural Causes.

Having a few rows of seating and playing under dimmed lighting efficiently communicates the fact that you take pictures or videos at your own peril. And amazingly, no-one does. I can’t remember the last show I went to when there was so little chatter and so few pulling out smart phones. “You are a nice, respectful audience”, Kozelek acknowledges near the end and he was not wrong.

He’s less complimentary towards Alberto the sound man who is constantly told to stop changing the volume of his vocals and acoustic guitar. A couple of times, Kozelek decides to dispense with such technicalities and sings without a microphone, something that makes the words practically inaudible to all but those right at the front. In normal circumstances this would prompt howls of protest but there wasn’t a hint of a heckle to be heard.

This unprecedented degree of reverence partly stems from the type of songs Kozelek sings. They are confessional in a way that reveal that life’s slings and arrows have left this man from Ohio vulnerable yet hardened.  He’s not someone to cross with or who suffers fools gladly.

The pains and pleasure of what he calls “the complicated mess of sex and love” in Dogs is an explicit description of the women he has known stripped of any boastfulness and concluding resignedly : “The nature of attraction cycles on and on. And nobody’s right and nobody’s wrong. Our early life shapes the types to whom we are drawn. It’s a complicated place, this planet we’re on”.

Now aged 47, Kozelek has spoken of the realisation that he can no longer write ballsy young man’s songs of bravado or defiance. These days, the shadow of death is a recurring topic.

In Carissa he describes returning to his home town of Ohio to try to make sense of freak accident that killed his second cousin at the age of 35. In Ceiling Gazing, the song that closes the show, he recounts the passing of his Grandfather: “the last time I saw him he was in a box and they were lowering him into the ground”.

Inevitably, these subjects raise thoughts of his own mortality and prompt the recognition that “I’ll go to the grave with my melancholy” (A line from I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same). The touching I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love is also surely based on the sad realisation that his mom’s days are numbered.

In all this he’s as detached as Meursault in Albert Camus’ ‘The Outsider’ and as poetically deadpan as the late Jason Molina. It is his focus on the banality rather than the drama of our daily thoughts and encounters that make his songs ring true.

Although his songs are steeped in nostalgia this doesn’t extend to his choice of songs for this solo show. The set list comes primarily from releases in the last couple of years with four songs off Perils From The Sea (his album with Jimmy Lavalle) and six from Benji, Sun Kil Moon‘s latest album. Heron Blue from 2008 was the oldest song he played.

Kozelek exits the stage with a mumbled ‘thank you’ as though relieved that another performance is over.

There must be some kind of catharsis in sharing some of his thoughts and fears with complete strangers who mostly have an imperfect grasp of his language but if there is, it doesn’t show.

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