Photo from Caldo Verde Records
For the better half of the past decade, singer Mark Kozelek has refined a style of songwriting that marries folksy guitar-swirled instrumentation with poetic, often painful lyricism.
After releasing two sharply personal records last year, a self-titled under his own name and This Is My Dinner with his band Sun Kil Moon, Kozelek emerges for the first time in 2019 to meditate on his blessings and concerns throughout Sun Kil Moon’s tenth and most politically-charged album I Also Want to Die in New Orleans.
The seemingly sincere title of the album is a play on the 2018 debut album of the rap duo $uicideboy$ titled I Want to Die in New Orleans, but similarities between the two artists end there. Who knows how invested Kozelek is in the Southern duo, but from past compositions such as “The Banjo Song,” it’s established that Mark has lived in New Orleans for a time. But unlike the record that song appears on, the narratives on this record never venture to Louisiana.
With a runtime of nearly an hour and a half, I Also Want to Die in New Orleans matches the length of Sun Kil Moon’s previous release This Is My Dinner, but instead of recounting a dreary European tour, this effort finds Kozelek in a headier space, floating in and out of the present moment without warning of what might come next. The binding element on this album, aside from the uncharacteristically upbeat folk and jazz-tinged instrumentation from Kozelek, Jim White and Donny McCaslin, is the recurring themes and characters in Kozelek’s music. His lyrics create a familiar atmosphere that’s like chatting with a friend over coffee every couple months or so.
On past Sun Kil Moon records, Kozelek has thrown brief jabs at politicians, unnecessary gun violence and technology’s destructive impact on intelligence. On This Is My Dinner’s opening track “This Is Not Possible,” he questioned if the U.S. president belonged in a mental hospital. And on 2013’s heartstring-pulling release Benji, he condemned U.S. gun laws and the loss of innocent lives in “Prayer for Newtown.” But on I Also Want to Die in New Orleans his irritation has reached a boiling point and his anger at societal ignorance is palpable.
Throughout the 15 minutes of what could be called the album’s only single, “Day In America” released February 17, Kozelek recalls learning about the Parkland, Florida shooting that killed 17 people on Valentine’s Day 2018. He uses the song to call out the hypocrisy of Republicans who mourn mass shootings but are unwilling to take action for change and he suggests the shooter should be punished in a way akin to Django Unchained. However, Kozelek has the self-awareness to qualify his rage-fueled stance by ending the track with the voice of friend expressing a more nuanced, disconcerting position on tragedy in modern America. Although the track is a bit rambling and detours into associative anecdotal stories, the guitar-heavy “Day In America” is one of the album’s most thought-provoking songs.
Its poignant message is only eclipsed by “Couch Potato,” the album’s other overtly political song. Over beautifully repetitive guitar and horn riffs, “Couch Potato” takes aim at the rapidly changing news cycle and the feigned outrage that people express because of its influence. But Kozelek does not condemn the offended or outraged in a Louis C.K. way, rather, he posits that people should be more concerned with issues that directly affect their lives instead of a bad date Aziz Ansari had. As he states in the song, “Don’t get me wrong/Don’t think I don’t care.” He goes on to express his distaste with the deportation of immigrants, gentrification and the abusive treatment of homeless people in his hometown of San Francisco. He laments, “I don’t mind the pimps and hoes and the bums pissin’ in the alleys and nobody else did/til San Francisco sold its ass to Silicon Valley.” On this song, he’s clearly over “whiny goddamn couch potatoes” and ponders why society is more concerned with becoming inflamed by ultimately insignificant scandals instead what is happening around the corner. It’s the album’s best track.
Despite its bold political statements, I Also Want to Die in New Orleans has its fair share of lighter, softer moments. On “L-48,” the shortest song on the album at 4:51, Kozelek muses about an old Gibson L-48 guitar that he bought for $60 at a garage sale and how a producer, Mark Needham, helped him unlock the potential of the instrument. His cat, Pink, who played a big role in the title track of This Is My Dinner is mentioned here, again.
In the somber opener “Coyote,” he finds beauty in mundane happenings, such as a coyote being rescued and a skunk taking refuge on his estate. The song is reminiscent of his 2018 track “Weed Whacker” in its domesticity. Keeping with the animal theme as evidenced by the cover photo, the fourth track “Cows” is the album’s weakest song, despite containing the obligatory shoutout to Ohio. Just as the title suggests, the lyrics find Kozelek stuck between his appreciation of the tranquil bovine beings and how he regrets eating them, but he does not think he can stop so late in life. One memorable line from the song goes, “From this day forward I solemnly vow/To only once a month sink my teeth in the flesh of a cow” and then he lists all of his favorite meat-serving restaurants. The song employs chant-like background vocals to its advantage but often loses the lead vocals in the mix.
“I’m Not Laughing at You” feels like a holdover from This Is My Dinner. It takes place in Ghent, Belgium and finds Mark being made fun of for being an American in the era of the sitting U.S. president. “I’m not laughing at you/I’m laughing at the country from where you came,” an expatriate Romanian woman tells him. The song ends with a gesture of good human nature, though. A Belgian chef who publicly makes fun of him ends up offering him the best cuts of barbecue lamb. The track feels like the black sheep of this album but still offers a satisfying narrative on top of spacey guitar chords.
Usually an album with a runtime of an hour and a half pushes the human attention span. But the final track on I Also Want to Die in New Orleans titled “Bay of Kotor” and running 23 minutes delivers such an emotional gut punch that it would be a sin to exclude it. If anything, “Cows” or “I’m Not Laughing at You” could have been cut for time.
“Bay of Kotor” is a story-driven masterwork encompassing the time Kozelek spent in Montenegro on the Adriatic Sea when Sun Kil Moon played the 2018 Sea Dance Festival. Over flamenco-style guitar, he sings about feeding sad-looking stray cats tuna and rebuking a server who struck a stray dog accompanying the singer at an outdoor restaurant. “Don’t ever do that again,” he tells him. But what makes this song so striking is the conversations he recalls having with one of the live-in maids at his hotel. He recalls telling her that she is so lucky to live in such a beautiful place by the sea but she replies that her life is “shit,” which leads to a tender emotional crescendo done partially in pure spoken word. The song is also the only on this album to mention Caroline, Kozelek’s longtime girlfriend who appears on many other songs he’s written, although she’s mentioned in name only.
Like nearly every other Sun Kil Moon album, I Also Want to Die in New Orleans is a lot to take in at once. Along with featuring more-prominent horn parts, current politics weigh heaviest on this effort, elevated above all of Mark’s day to day happenings. But the lyrics still manage to delve into the beauty of the mundane and contain several long, internal monologues expressed out loud. I Also Want to Die in New Orleans is another chapter to a continuous puzzle that not even Kozelek can fully comprehend. Like his listeners, he can only meditate on what has happened and why and hope for a satisfying answer. When it comes down to it, who can really make complete sense of life, anyway? We can only ruminate on what is most important to us, whether it’s the disenfranchised, the helpless or, well, cows.
By Luke Furman