Sun Kil Moon: Mark Kozelek’s War Machine

Was on a flight home from—well, it doesn’t matter
Eleven hours, a million thoughts were gathered
And my mind kept racing to my garden of lavender
I wanted to get to them so they wouldn’t die
When I got home, they were dry as weed
While the vines wrapped around them B-horror film green
I’m not sure what my lavender symbolized
But inside my heart cried

– Sun Kil Moon ‘Garden of Lavender’

As a fan coming late to the party I find myself shuffling past people on their way out the door of the Mark Kozelek fan club. Those who entered during Kozelek’s earlier years in Red House Painters express consistent and increasing dissatisfied with his work in Sun Kil Moon, most clearly seen in the reception of his summer 2015 release Universal Themes.

Kozelek’s previous album Benji was a perfect storm of beauty and sadness but Universal Themes is something else. The album has little to commend itself in terms of lyrical efficiency or accessible hooks. And as one reviewer noted, Kozelek’s line, “How the hell did I end up playing myself in an Italian film set in a ski town in Switzerland?” is not exactly relatable as a universal theme. The lyrical content for Universal Themes is hyper particular, read straight off his scrawled mental notes.

Perhaps the title is ironic. Perhaps Kozelek is making the statement that the particular is the universal. These are fine readings. My sense is that Kozelek is increasingly willing to wager; to risk removing more steps in the creative process; of getting closer to the event, the change that triggers the new. The risk Kozelek runs is getting too close to the source which leaves you with banality; waiting and watching in real time. So you make a calculated guess.

Lauren Berlant in Cruel Optimism states that change is somatic.

Change is an impact lived on the body before anything is understood, and as such is simultaneously meaningful and ineloquent, engendering an atmosphere that [we] spend the rest of . . . [our] lives catching up to.” (39) [emphasis mine]

Later Berlant cites Christpoher Bollas’s notion of the ‘unthought known’ which asserts “that knowledge forms before it is experienced idiomatically, in terms of subject’s own patterning.” (138).

This is not a unique artistic approach and is common among authors. Clarice Lispector’s works are riddled with attempts to not-think and write. Karl Ove Knausgaard, when interviewed about his massive work My Struggle, said he that got into a rhythm where he tried to stay ahead of this thinking. And I would suspect that many artists would resonate with similar intentions and attempts. Most artists, however, are (understandably) unwilling to allow their work to be released without the editing believing they can produce a work more beautiful . . . more eloquent. And the truth is most work would not be released precisely because of how it will (not) be received.

I’m not sure what my lavender symbolized
But inside my heart cried

Kozelek gambles in his attempt to catch the event as it makes its inevitable impact on his body. In Benji Kozelek focused mainly events that he had spent years catching up to; events sedimented with the insight and knowledge that Kozelek had accrued through the years (with track 8 ‘I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same‘ as a high water mark in this method). This process gave Benji more texture . . . more eloquence. But with Universal Themes Kozelek sets out to catch the unthought known by, at best, putting up police tape and sketching chalk lines.

In their attempts to extricate thought from the reason of the State (or the State as “the becoming of reason”) Deleuze and Guattari explore what it means to make thought a war machine (as distinct from State or Military machines; machines in this instance being collective expressions that determine the movement and meaning of life in a given area). To consider thought as a war machine is “to place thought in an immediate relation with the outside, with the forces of the outside.”  (376-377)

[The war machine] is not related to cadence or measure: it is only in State armies, and for reasons of discipline and show, that one marches in cadence. (390)

[The war machine] rather produces its effect of immensity by its fine articulation, in other words, by its heterogeneity in a free space. (391)

That is, no catchy hooks or efficient lyrics, those are the products of State music (not that there is anything wrong with that!). This also accounts for Kozelek’s lyrical ‘fine articulation’ and ‘heterogeneity’. There are seemingly few attempts to limit and steer the flow of his lyrics out of concern that they will miss what he is inevitably unable to clearly identify.

Again, this is all a gamble. The house, the state, the industry will inevitably win the majority of hands (and we’ll have fun watching them rake it in). But neither the house, the state, not the industry are universal. That being said the particular is also not universal. If we can speak of universal themes in this way it is in the non-repeatable inter-particular relays that emerge as in our relation to the outside; to the exterior.

Universal Themes sprawls and flows over unmarkable events (“I’m not sure what my lavender symbolized”). It is a work of attention and not imagination which has always been deemed a failure by  majority audiences and most critics. Such an attempt comes too close to the outside, to reality in its unbearable banality and possibility. This may or may not be a great album but it comes pretty close to accomplishing its title.




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