Record Review: Jesu / Sun Kil Moon

Jesu / Sun Kil Moon
Self-titled collaboration
Caldo Verde / Rough Trade

It’s a new year here at RDU Music, so I have decided to not only start reviewing TV and film but also recent album releases. First up, an unlikely collaboration between Justin Broadrick and Mark Kozelek: Jesu / Sun Kil Moon.

The reason I use the term “unlikely” is that stylistically, these two bands are not very near to each other on the aural spectrum, but fans of both bands (the target audience of this collaboration) will know that Mark and Justin have been friends for a long time, both release records on Mark’s label, and have both been making music their own way at a high frequency of output since the 90s. Personally, I was visibly excited when I first heard talk of this collaboration since I am a huge fan of both of their respective bodies of work. I easily made the transition along with Justin when he stepped away from the claustrophobic and monolithic Godflesh to focus on the more expansive and melodic Jesu. I also rode shotgun as Mark transitioned away from hauntingly pastoral folk toward the more experimental, stream-of-consciousness, middle-fingering of his latter-day work. In short, I was sitting on the porch steps with my coat in hand, ready to go for this new ride with the both of them. While this record will likely not go down in history alongside “Conqueror” or “Ghosts of the Great Highway,” this collaboration is indeed a solid listen, even if it didn’t leave an indelible mark in my psyche like many of their solo recordings.

One prerequisite for enjoying this record that I am honor-bound to touch upon is a predilection for Mark Kozelek’s latter-day work. Basically anything after and including “Among the Leaves.” If you have not yet come to terms with his stream-of-consciousness spewing, fan-mail reading, leave-all-interpretation-to-the-listener, overly-autobiographical lyrical approach, then you will also have a hard time fully enjoying this album. Personally, I will say that Mark has taken a step too far with this new style. It was a nice change of pace on “Among the Leaves,” mastered on “Benji,” then became a bit tiresome on “Universal Themes” and also the collaboration with Jesu. I honestly can’t blame Mark though. You try writing deep and life-changing lyrics for 25 years straight. This style isn’t entirely bankrupt though. On tracks like the closer, “Beautiful You,” they still lend insights into the life of an important musical personality. Just don’t expect another trip to “Grace Cathedral Park.”

My only complaint about this record is that it does not entirely function as a whole. Many of the individual tracks are borderline excellent but others feel like either one or both of the artists simply had some scraps laying around and floated them past each other to see what might pan out. Highlights include the mature introspection of “Good Morning My Love” and the punch of “A Song of Shadows,” both of which rely musically on Jesu. In fact, one might say those sound like Jesu tracks with Mark Kozelek singing over them, which makes for a startlingly effective and pleasing aural response. “Fragile” is devoid of nearly all touches of Jesu save for some swirling ambiance in the second half and could have easily found a home on any of the last three Sun Kil Moon records, but is still gorgeous and will please the SKM faithful. Most of the rest of the tracks strike me as sounding like outtakes from Mark’s excellent 2013 collaboration with Jimmy LaValle, only with added signature Jesu harmonic overtones. That doesn’t make them bad songs, it only creates a divide in those songs versus tracks such as “America’s Most Wanted Mark Kozelek and John Dillinger,” which strikes me as the only track on the album that feels like Justin and Mark sat down and wrote it together, trying to distill the essence of each of their styles into a true songwriting collaboration.

This record is easy to pick apart if you are a lifelong fan of both bands but that doesn’t take away from the fact that this is still a good record that is very listenable. It merely hints at greatness but never quite achieves it. Still, I spin it regularly due to its immense depth plus its unique sound and find myself happily wrestling with the various inscrutable emotional responses that it invokes as its cup overflows with mystery.

3/5 stars = Good