Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon at the SXSW festival earlier this year. Photo: Rahav Segev/Getty
Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon at the SXSW festival earlier this year. Photo: Rahav Segev/Getty © Rahav Segev/Getty

I watched a gig by Sun Kil Moon. They’re a band from the US fronted by a guy called Mark Kozelek. He used to be in the Red House Painters. His songs are monologues about his life and the stuff that happens to him. A lot of people die in his songs. A possum dies, too. But they’re not all totally miserable.

I watched a gig by Sun Kil Moon. I was excited to see Steve Shelley on drums. He used to be in Sonic Youth. Kozelek’s songs namecheck a lot of other bands. Steve Shelley still has lots of hair. They also had a shy guy playing six-string bass. And a keyboardist. The sound was spare and clear.

If Mark Kozelek were to write a song about one of his own gigs, it might go something like that. It may sound wearying and mannered, but actually it isn’t: the cadences of Kozelek’s lyrics, their emotional ebb and flow — long sentences, short sentences, deep stuff, banal stuff — give them a hypnotic quality. Meanwhile the music loops and grooves, building and subsiding as Kozelek paces the stage. This can go on for 10 minutes or more; the effect is cumulative and compelling.

There’s also an arrogance to Kozelek that some may find off-putting. He’s on record as having been unpleasantly abusive about a Guardian journalist at one of his concerts. All I can say is that I warmed to him. If you heckle him or rile him, he will come back at you, harshly — and he did here, a couple of times. But he’s also funny.

Kozelek doesn’t just namecheck other bands and musicians: he writes whole songs about them. One such song here was “Fragile”, from this year’s album Jesu/Sun Kil Moon (a collaboration with experimental British band Jesu). It was a touching tribute to Chris Squire, the bassist with Yes, who died last year (Sun Kil Moon’s music is punctuated by proggy, twiddly interludes, so Squire was clearly a formative influence).

Kozelek also channelled his anger into righteous political songs such as “Me We”, based on Muhammad Ali’s two-word poem, while “I Love Portugal” provided relief from the intensity — and raised cheers from the audience’s Portuguese contingent. They played for more than two hours but it didn’t seem like it. It was powerful and haunting.

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