The night started off in an upsetting yet undeniably impressive way. A visibly shaken Mark came out to the crowd to announce the news that Lou Reed had passed away. He told a few funny stories about the handful of times he had met the Velvet Underground founder then launched into a wonderful cover of “Caroline Says II”, a fitting tribute. He followed with what is possibly the best version of “You Missed My Heart” that I've ever heard. It was powerful, expressive and wonderfully played, raising expectations for the rest of the night.
I have seen Mark Kozelek perform at Union Chapel many times now. It's become somewhat of a regular occurrence and I try to go whenever I can as the shows are often sublime and work so well in the beautiful setting that Union Chapel provides. This time around however, there were problems. The stage lights were almost non existent, leaving Kozelek bathed in a weak blue glow which made it almost impossible to see him let alone garner any sort of detail. There were also issues with the sound. At the start the vocals were inaudibly low and there was so much reverb added to the mix (in an echoey old church of all places) that it made it almost impossible to understand anything he said or sang. It was clear from the start that emotions were running high. The news of Lou Reed's death had obviously hit him hard and from what I understand, he had come straight to the venue from the airport, on day 17 of a 19 day tour. Whilst the technical issues aren't really Kozelek's fault, his reaction (a rant that centred around the theme of “fuck you”) to paying fans who said that they couldn't hear him and that there was too much echo, was unnecessarily petulant. His grumbling about the amount of travel involved in his job and how he never plays anywhere “unless the price is right” was also less than endearing. The life of a touring musician is a lonely and hard one but it seems Kozelek is well paid for the inconvenience. That's if his comments about his $600 shoes were anything to go by.
I've seen enough of Kozelek's performances to know that his flippant grumpiness is meant to be part of his charm, yet he was far more morose than usual. His insistence on not playing any material more than a couple of years old seemed strange as well, though he did later consent to playing “Alesund”, one of his most memorable pieces of guitar work. Things came to a head later on when a seemingly innocuous song request from a fan, opened a wound. Kozelek informed the crowd that he had never played that particular song live and the only time he can remember trying was at a soundcheck, that only the late Tim Mooney was present at. Suddenly, struck by the memory of this event and his recently departed friend there was a long, silent pause whilst Kozelek welled up with tears and had to regain his composure. Once he had recovered, he continued on for a few more songs. He rounded the night off with another Lou Reed cover and a version of “All Mixed Up” in tribute to another absent friend, the film director John Hughes.
Whilst Kozelek has written songs dealing with death in the past, there has always been an element of detachment to his approach. His beautiful 2003 album Ghosts Of The Great Highway for example deals with the subject through biographical tales of boxers and the haunting effects that memories of those that have passed can have on the people they leave behind. However, in the last couple of years, his lyrics have taken a drastic change in direction. Gone is the distance from the subject matter, the allusions and any trace of metaphor. Kozelek's new lyrics are autobiographical, honest and at times strikingly bleak. At first this was an interesting exercise that produced songs like “Sunshine In Chicago” and “UK Blues”. Humorous, intriguing and offering a then rare glimpse into Kozelek's life on the road, these songs are deserving of a place amongst the most treasured in his catalogue. Whilst his last two albums Perils From The Sea and Mark Kozelek and Desert Shore (both collaborative efforts that contain little to none of Kozelek's stunning guitar playing) retain some of the humour of his earlier attempts at writing in this style, it's the descriptions of emotional pain and sadness that leave the most indelible impression. Ever prolific, Kozelek is planning on releasing his fifth studio album in 3 years in February. The handful of songs he played from it were a mixed bag, ranging from touching tributes to slightly disturbing descriptions of horrendous acts. He explained that the albums title Benji, is taken from the 1974 movie, which he remembers seeing on a visit to his grandmother's in L.A. He went on to explain that the overriding theme of the album was death and that the majority of the songs were focused on that subject.
If the 4 songs he played from Benji are any indication, Kozelek's new material comes from a very dark place. At one point during a song about his father, there was a pause where he looked at the crowd and said “this shit's supposed to be funny”. Admittedly at times it was, but any humour was lost as it was contrasted against accounts of physical altercations between father and son. Altercations that Kozelek Jr apparently never won. Another song detailed the death of a friend (an increasingly common theme in Kozelek's writing it seems) and yet another was an account of the horrific crimes of serial killer Richard Ramirez. This kind of subject matter isn't new ground for Kozelek, though his songwriting in years gone by produced songs with a far softer touch than those he played on Sunday night.
To my ears, Kozelek's new approach seems to have removed some of the beauty from his music. It's somewhat telling that the best song from his recent repertoire is “You Missed My Heart”, a song that deals with death as the main subject, in far rawer fashion than previous tales like “Glen Tipton”, yet it allows the writer (and the listener) to keep their distance as it's clearly a work of fiction. As a longtime fan of Kozelek's music, I have always appreciated the emotional side of his songs, so it may seem hypocritical of me to be so wary of his new material now that the metaphor and distance are removed and that emotion that was so highly prized is laid bare. Yet I still can't help but feel that the truth, whilst not ugly, is simply not as pretty as what came before it.
Sunday's show was an odd and uncomfortable experience for me. Kozelek's mood was all at once humorous, morose and angry. He was seemingly tired and suffering emotional spill over from what sounds like a hard year both personally and professionally. The sound and lighting issues only detracted from the performance and more than anything, I left feeling sad about what I had witnessed. About 2 years ago, I took my girlfriend to see Mark Kozelek play at Union Chapel. Kozelek was on brilliant form that night, possibly the best I've ever seen him and at one point during the night I looked over at my girlfriend to see that she had been so moved by the beauty of the music that there were tears running down her cheek. Mark Kozelek's performances have the power to bring people a lot of happiness and next time I go to see him, and I will go again, I hope Mark is in a place that is better suited to deliver such a performance.