Music With Roots

Like the best of Bob Dylan, the lyrics of folk band Sun Kil Moon capture a sense of memory and place that’s missing from most pop music.

Bob Dylan winning 2016’s Nobel Prize for Literature was, to borrow the overused modifier so popular with my generation, problematic. Last year, I defended his victory as a triumph of a half-forgotten and rarely celebrated Bardic tradition that stretches back at least as far as the 10th century troubadour Arnaut Daniel. Dylan’s award was a triumph of deep tradition, and as the shared root of the words “tradition” and “radical” suggests, most things that sound masterfully radical to our ears are usually conveying the shock of remembrance, not the novel impossibility of creating ex nihilo.

Dylan’s victory wasn’t in itself problematic—his lyrics classify as Literature by any measure. Rather, his win accentuated how terrible most other contemporary lyrics are. For a point of comparison, listen to Dylan’s song Changing of the Guards, a rollicking cascade of symbolist phrases and Biblical images that moves with the logic and force of an unforgettable dream. Then try listening to Twenty One Pilots’ “Stressed Out,” which won a 2017 Grammy for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance. “Stressed Out” is boring and juvenile, and in every hollow syncopation you can hear the regurgitated noises of a million other similar pop songs. The difference between it and the Dylan song is the difference between amnesiac repetition and cultivated memory. It’s not even a matter of good art versus bad art, but the difference between a work of art and a product that acts as a commercial for a defunct, cheap culture obsessed with the ephemeral.

Most pop music reflects the shallowness of our popular culture. It feeds us back our insipidness in a sort of infinite regression. Though Dylan is renowned, his popularity is almost an accident of fate. To find music that aspires to art, lyrically or otherwise, you usually have to look to the fringes. Popular music is happy to sell you a disposable identity, but if you want to find songs about life itself in all of its granular detail, songs rooted in actual places and nourished by real relationships, you have to look to non-celebrities to deliver. Sun Kil Moon, possibly the most lyrically ambitious band in America, provide those things missing from our atomized culture—melancholy, yet honest, descriptions of that very atomization foremost among them.

I probably shouldn’t play up Sun Kil Moon’s outsider status too much. Their music is well loved by a respectably-sized and dedicated core of fans and has appeared in movies and commercials; if you don’t know them, you might have heard them without knowing it. The band formed in the early 00’s out of the ashes of the Red House Painters, a moody and soft-spoken rock band rooted in deceptively simple arrangements and the Romantic, confessional lyrics of Mark Kozelek.

Kozelek is much more than Sun Kil Moon’s band leader. The band is really a vehicle for Kozelek’s lyrics, which, as the decades have passed, have completely shed their former baroque lushness and transformed into a stark conversational journal about his life. There’s simply nothing else like it being recorded right now. And his work, prodigious as it is, seems to be continually improving. The recent release of Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood (2017) completes what we should consider a trilogy, along with Universal Themes (2015) and Benji (2014), of the most starkly candid lyrical albums in American music. Whatever fame Kozelek has, his contribution to American music specifically, and culture more broadly, comes from inhabiting the persona of an “anti-celebrity”. Or, to put it more colloquially, a real human person.

Kozelek has a family. On the album Benji he sings about both of his parents (“I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” and “I Love My Dad”) and the tragic death of his second-cousin Carissa (“Carissa”). If your average pop singer would deign to write love songs to their parents, they would probably humorlessly drone on in irritatingly vague terms about banal stuff that “we could all relate to”—as if the everyman existed and lived off of platitudes alone. But Kozelek gives us the details of his love in conversational language so intimate and specific you can almost feel his break on your face:

When I was five I came home from kindergarten crying cause they sat me next to an albino

My dad said son everyone’s different, you gotta love em all equally

And then my dad sat me down

He said you gotta love all people, pink, red, black, or brown

And then just after dinner

He played me the album They Only Come Out At Night by Edgar Winter

And nothing can compare to the plain pathos of “Carissa”, which is composed of the thoughts Kozelek has as he prepares to return home to Ohio to attend the funeral of his second-cousin:

Yesterday morning I woke up to so many 330 area code calls

I called my mom back and she was in tears and asked had I spoke to my father?

Carissa burned to death last night in a freak accident fire

In her yard in Brewster

Her daughter came home from a party and found her

Same way as my uncle, who was her grandfather

An aerosol can blew up in the trash

Unlike most popular music, which exists in a strange netherworld dislocated from specific place (or occasionally acts as a cartoonish caricature of the idea of a place), Sun Kil Moon songs are rooted in actual locations. Kozelek goes home to Ohio for a funeral. He has dinner in Cleveland. He visits his dad’s friend Jim Wise, who is under house arrest and will probably be “headed to the Mansfield prison” by the end of the year. He sees a band perform in Williamsburg. He drives past “the abandoned Molly Stark hospital.” These songs are well-worn atlases of actual people and places—the warmth of their breath and the feel of a particular space. It’s a specific kind of intimacy that uses granular details to create a pointillist mosaic of an actual person. Imagine an entire song catalogue composed of lyrics in the same vein as William Carlos Williams’ “This Is Just To Say.”

Dylan and Kozelek both draw from deep tradition, just two divergent ones. Dylan never quite abandoned the symbolism and mythopoetics of his mid-60’s catalogue, fusing it with pop and confessional folk songs to flit in between the most detailed observations and broad mythic incantation. Go back and listen to “Shelter From The Storm” to reacquaint yourself. But Kozelek’s lyrics never reach for the mythic register. They stay fixed firmly, not just in the details of Kozelek’s life, but cocooned within his own subjective experience of his life. These observations and confessions are written in the cadence of everyday conversation, and in time with the rhythms of the common world: campfire monologues, the local paper, dinner talk, snippets of conversations overheard at parties.

Using unadorned and accessible language to explore the individual experience is a decidedly modern tradition that counts Montaigne among its forefathers, moves through Wordsworth’s preface to his Lyrical Ballads, and makes  its way into American poetry by way of Robert Creeley. Creeley could have easily been commenting on Kozelek’s lyrics when he wrote: “All that would matter to me, finally, as a writer, is that the scale and the place of our common living be recognized, and that the mundane in that simple emphasis be acknowledged.” Kozelek’s lyrics, like Creeley’s poetry, celebrate the “scale and place and of our common living.”

If I had to guess, I would think Kozelek would be embarrassed to be mentioned in the same breath as Montaigne and Creeley. He seems like a humble guy. But his humility is itself the heart of his genius. Celebrities make bad art because their fevered egos are trapped in the weird distorted world that’s been created for them. They don’t see things as they are, especially themselves. As Ambrose Bierce wrote of Montaigne, “… so great is his humility that he does not think it important that we see not Montaigne. He so forgets himself that he employs no artifice to make us forget him.” Lyrically, Kozelek forgets to not mention himself in the process of helping us to remember our own lives. His plainness and humility give him the perspective required to create the most penetrating and honest music currently being recorded in America. It’s an exaltation of the ordinary that runs counter to the disposable make-believe realities of popular culture. It’s the triumph of actual people over the empty mirage of celebrity.

Scott Beauchamp is a veteran and writer based in Portland, Maine.

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4 Responses to Music With Roots

  1. NortonSmitty says:

    I certainly agree that Dylan deserves the Nobel. Times change, and it has been a hell of a long time, at least in America, that an actual Poet has been relevant to our popular culture. But if you set it to music… He probably wasn’t the first, but he consistently took it the extreme. And it was no accident, he was almost as good at self-promotion.
    And you could pick almost any of his songs to show his genius. But your comparison to Sun Kil Moon’s, well, a lot of Musicians have had that millstone hung around their necks for over 50 years now. Your description of his songwriting style sounded more like John Prine, which is no small praise. So I went to YouSteal and listened to the whole Ghosts of the Great Highway album. And you’re right, they are head and shoulders above the dreck we get today. They aren’t Dylan, they aren’t Prine. But they aren’t bad. Thanks.

  2. TJ Martin says:

    I agree whole heartedly with NortonSmitty . Upon reading your review I pulled up YouSteal [ I’m stealing that one NS ] myself to give the album a listen . And though definitely not within the realms of a Dylan , Joni or Neil at his best they are head and shoulders lyrically above most of the fray today .. including the Fray . Now if he’d bring his level of composition and musicianship both of which are on the vapid side up to the level of his lyrics .

  3. Flabby McGee says:

    “rarely celebrated Bardic tradition” which would be because in the US we have no ‘Bardic tradition’ and about 1 in 25,000,000 even know what a ‘Bardic tradition’ is. Anyway for those of you who always want to rhapsodize about the ’60s, the whole scene was chock-a-block with bards and bardic wannabes but I don’t really think the chockiness or the blockiness qualifies as a tradition, more like a way to meet girrrrls.

  4. Krogerfoot says:

    “Carissa” was one of the most startling songs I’d ever heard, and Everyone’s grieving and out of their minds, making arrangements and taking drugs/But I’m flying out there tomorrow because I need to give and get some hugs was couplet of the year in my book.

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