My mother and I drive from Los Angeles to a suburb outside San Francisco because her father is dying. At least he thinks he’s dying. His bladder has stage three cancer and his blood pressure is bad and he’s losing weight. But the doctors say that with radiation he could last a few more years. The cancer moves slow.
We’re on the 101, just beyond King City, and I’m listening to the new Sun Kil Moon album, I Also Want to Die in New Orleans. She isn’t. I’m wearing headphones, even though she wants to talk, because I told her I’m writing a review of the album. My mother is very small. She grips the wheel tightly. She hunches forward when I tell her, “My friend Joey at The Nervous Breakdown asked me to review the new Sun Kil Moon album so I’m listening to it now, on headphones.” She’s only okay with me putting on headphones if I frame it as “a career thing.” She likes to talk to me (not about her dying father) and it’s not like I’m home very often or the best at sharing things about my life on the phone, or in person. Sometimes I don’t know if my mother trusts me. Like her, I don’t particularly like her dying father. But I think, maybe because she says I have his eyes, that she worries some nasty part of him will continue living on inside of me. And that scares her. The car is a BMW SUV.
I don’t want you to worry that because I’m somewhat distant with my mother, and maybe am a lot like my sort of evil grandfather, you can’t trust me to thoughtfully review this album while also communicating some sort of deeper truth about myself. I’m an extremely honest and thoughtful guy—in writing. If it helps, I can tell you why my grandfather’s a real dick. First off, he’s a racist. Also, a bit manipulative and/or emotionally abusive. Like one time when I was eight or nine he asked me to play the piano for him. I’d been taking lessons, but said I didn’t feel like playing the piano at that moment. So he told me he suspected I didn’t know how to play the piano at all. That I was too dumb to learn the piano. And that my mother had been lying to him about the fact that I could play. He did this until I cried. Also, he often reminds my mom she was an accident. Tells her she made her mother’s life so much worse. Her mother had very bad depression. She’s dead now.
But my mother and I are doing our best to be nice. To possess empathy greater than his because he’s having a real hard time of it right now. He cries when he pisses from the pain. He showed my mother his testicles the last time she saw him. “Swollen like grapefruits!” she said. See, I’m honest. So, believe me, if you don’t already know what this new Sun Kil Moon album is going to be like, you probably won’t like it. You should, however, keep reading anyway because it is amazing.
Sun Kil Moon is Mark Kozelek. Mark Kozelek was also the bass player in the Almost Famous band (Stillwater), the “dude, fix your face” guy from Vanilla Sky, and the singer/guitarist in his old band, Red House Painters. Back then he wrote songs about doing heroin in San Francisco, being sad in San Francisco and having sex in San Francisco. Whenever I go to San Francisco, which isn’t that often, I think, “Oh Grace Cathedral Park, like the Red House Painters song.” In 2014 he released an album called Benji which the writers at Pitchfork enjoyed quite a bit. It was filled with confessional, narrative, songs about Mark’s family in Ohio. The first song, “Carissa,” is about going back to Ohio after his cousin dies in a trash fire accident. He says he wanted “to make some sense of this, to find a deeper meaning.”
Since then, he’s released a bunch more albums about trying to find some sense, a deeper meaning, often in the mundane. The songs have grown longer and less structured (although they are always performed impeccably by a crew of studio musicians, and Kozelek plays great classical and electric guitar). Pitchfork has liked each new album less and less. And the albums aren’t necessarily about Ohio, or the past. This is My Dinner—probably my favorite late Kozelek album—focuses mostly on touring, often in Scandinavia. The songs range from stories of his youth to the present day misadventures of a middle-aged Mark. They include romance, his cat’s death, a very good tagliatelle only available at lunch. The way in which he records minutia so that it accumulates meaning—those odd moments when the past pokes into the present and time folds over itself, where you see clearly the ways you have and haven’t changed—reminds me of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series. I haven’t actually read those books. I have been told, however, that by the end he’s writing just as much about writing the books as he is about being Karl Ove Knausgaard. In that way, his project, like Mark Kozelek’s, becomes its own kind of fiction. By treating your entire life as material, by incorporating even the smallest acts into art, your relationship to those moments somehow evolves. They stop being real.
I think what I like about Mark Kozelek is that, even though he’s an asshole—and he knows he’s an asshole—he believes in a beauty that’s bigger than him. And he believes in love. Maybe I sound corny. But I think there’s something to be said for people who are fine with embarrassing themselves. People who almost welcome the embarrassment. And I think I Also Want to Die in New Orleans is a deeply embarrassing album. And that’s why it’s worth listening to a grouchy middle-aged guy from Ohio mumble about stuff that seems otherwise incongruous and stupid.
So, I am in the car with my mother listening to Mark Kozelek’s new album, and thinking about the only time I have been to New Orleans. I had just graduated from college and was driving across the country with my friends Jeremy and Weston. We were in a different SUV. One without air conditioning. We stayed in a hostel with bunk beds and got drunk on frozen daiquiris in the street and ate oyster po’ boys. In an Uber to see a friend of Weston’s, our driver told us about how he once saw Anthony Davis at the club. He promised us Anthony Davis would never leave New Orleans. Anthony Davis demanded a trade this season.
Mark Kozelek doesn’t sing about basketball. He sings—and his singing at this point is basically talking—about animals. At least that’s what I’m noticing in the long messy songs, today, in the car with my mother. The album’s cover is a slightly blurry photo of a cat, stepping forward. And on the opening track, “Coyote,” Mark and his girlfriend smell a skunk in the house they are staying in. Part of it goes like this:
At 10 P.M., you said you smelled a skunk (“I smell a skunk”)
And you were right, the odor got more intense
I took a piss outside to see if I could smell the skunk and I didn’t
While I was takin’ a piss, I looked up at the moon
And my god it was beautiful (I looked up at the moon)
And it smelled like pine (Smelled like pine)
All my headaches went away
Later, they decide the skunk is actually a gas leak. Then they realize they were right the first time. It is a skunk. But they don’t find it.
The fourth track is called “Cows.”
And on the last song, “Bay of Kotor,” which runs about the length of a Seinfeld episode, Mark finds a litter of starving kittens in the street. They’re skin and bones. Two are missing eyes. He knows they won’t make it. “There’s nothing I hate more,” he sings, “than the sound of hungry animals crying.” The song’s first line is: “Woke up this morning hungry, I walked along the Bay of Kotor.” The last line is: “San Francisco.” “Bay of Kotor” reminds me of a conversation I had with my friend, Italian Mike, over Italian food in Syracuse. We’d been listening to Mark Kozelek’s music in the car. He said, “With the really long songs I tend to only remember stuff from the middle and end. Like I’m phasing in and out during the beginning. Then suddenly it catches me.” “That’s funny,” I said, “I feel like I’m the opposite. I start listening intently, then it just kind of dissolves. I only get patches.” Writing this now, I think, “Mark, are you a hungry animal crying?”
One time, before we moved him to a nursing home, my grandfather called the Ferguson protestors animals. At the time it disturbed me. How could a person could be so callous toward the pain and suffering of others? It still disturbs me. But I am also disturbed by how a person could think, “I am not an animal. I am something better than the other creatures on this earth.” And I think, “anyone doing anything other than constantly fighting to reduce the suffering of others is in some way callous to that suffering.” We fade in and out. Only get patches.
“L-48” is the shortest song on I Also Want to Die in New Orleans and it isn’t about animals. It’s about a guitar Mark’s owned for a long time. It’s the guitar on the cover of the Red House Painters album, Songs for a Blue Guitar. The guitar isn’t blue. A song on that album, “Have You Forgotten,” is the first Mark Kozelek song I ever listened to. I was in college, in the library, with my friend Isabelle. Later she became my girlfriend. Now she is just my friend again. In “L-48,” Mark writes a song on his L-48 and goes to the recording studio to work on an album. Mark sings, “Every day of my life an adventure,” and at first I thought, “He must mean the adventure of making art, the constant discovery.” But then I figured that was cliché and kind of silly. Even if it is what he meant. So I decided, because adventures are really just a type of story, that every day of Mark’s life is an adventure because all his days have the potential to be made into songs, translated into art, given meaning, etc.
I’m sorry. I lied in the first part of this review. I didn’t listen to I Also Want to Die in New Orleans in the car with my mother. I wrote that scene, the one at the start, before I even got back to California. Before I got in an SUV with my mother and drove to see her father. In real life, we talked about our dogs and the weather. I looked at the bumpy pavement vanishing beneath us and tried to make some sense of things, to find a deeper meaning. That was months ago and my grandfather still isn’t dead. But another one of my friends is. His name was Will. And I miss him.
Every day of my life is an adventure.
I am in the car with my mother going to see my grandfather. I am on the plane from Syracuse to California thinking about how I’ll need to go see my grandfather. I am in my grandfather’s room in the old folks home, watching him watch the news on TV. I am walking in Manhattan and talking to my mother on the phone after she and her father stop speaking—after he cuts her out of his will. I am sitting on the couch in Brooklyn, writing this review, while my girlfriend reads a book of poems by Grady Chambers. And I am thinking about how last night, at the KGB bar, my friend Michael told me a story about Barry Hannah. He said, “Barry believed in something deeper than fun. Joy.” After Michael said that, my girlfriend and I went to back to our Airbnb and to bed. She said that she missed her dog and our dead friend Will, who—because he’s now in this review—is alive again, and unreal.