Confessional songwriting works like a window: the songwriter looks out of the window and takes their inspiration from the world outside, all the while watching their own reflection on the shiny glass. The audience looks in through the window at the songwriter, and again, they see themselves over-layed in the glass. This dual-vision has ensured the writing styles popularity for years. People look to the confessional songwriter as somebody who can articulate their own pain and joy while singing about something personal to the artist. It’s a sort of language which is both universal and completely private, and it’s a very difficult thing to get right.
As much as we are social beings, humans are most interested in themselves. We are in our very nature selfish, and that is what drives our interest in music that seems to reflect our feelings and beliefs. Ever listened to a songs lyrics and thought that it was meant for you? I’m pretty sure there are thousands of people out there who think the same thing. That’s the beauty of good confessional songwriting, when it is done right, it is delivered straight into your heart.
“Now I know a disease that these doctors can’t treat/you contract on the day you accept all you see/is a mirror and a mirror is all it can be/a reflection of something we’re missing.” Bright Eyes, ‘A Scale, A Mirror And Those Indifferent Clocks’
My enjoyment of music, although now more developed, was once solely based on this idea of a personal/universal connection. As a young person struggling with mental illness and a cruel world, I found solace in the words of songwriters who seemed to understand just how I felt. Most of these artists are still held close to my heart now, and in a way, they helped teach me how to talk more openly about my feelings.
The albums that speak to me most of this level aren’t recent, with a few rare exceptions. Last year, when audience-botherer Mark Kozelek released ‘Benji’ under the name Sun Kil Moon, it shot to the top of mine, and many other’s favourite albums list, and has since been cemented as a classic of confessional songwriting. Confessional may not be the most appropriate word for the albums lyrics, it’s more of a journal of a year in the life of Kozelek, but it works perfectly as a prime example of the window/mirror idea. Even when the lyrics don’t talk about emotions directly, the listener is still left with overwhelming feelings of grief, fear and hope for overcoming the banality of everyday life. It was a masterstroke, and it left critics floored. It’s hard to explain just how connective the album is, and finding an example of it is almost impossible. Listening to Benji is an experience, a journey that you go on with Mark, and it’s very rare that an album feels that way in our modern age.
Death is a running theme throughout Benji, and it seems fitting that the first song on it’s follow-up, Universal Themes, is about death too. It’s not about the death of family members, friends, neighbours or a serial killer — it’s about the death of a possum. As an animal lover, I am in no way implying that the death of a rodent isn’t sad, but upon listening, it’s not as immediately gripping as Benji opener ‘Carissa’. Before the new album was released, the SKM fan community had decided that it would probably be a long, convuluted and ‘difficult’ record, in order to counteract the runaway success of the last album. After I listened to Universal Themes for the first time, it was hard not to say that they were right. After all, a great way to ward off casual listeners is to make an album at polar opposites to the most popular one of your career.
“But I’m a songwriter, I write songs in my car until the day I die/I write songs that make people laugh, cry, happy/and songs that make grown man shit their pants like little fucking babies” Sun Kil Moon, “Ali/Spinks 2”
Sonically, the album is very different, that’s undeniable. Steve Shelley’s influence has turned the band into Sun-ic Youth. It’s messy, claustrophobic, loud and long…very long. Kozelek has never been a songwriter to rest on his laurels and stick to what he knows, so it’s no surprise that Universal Themes takes such a different approach.
The lyrics aren’t as easy to comprehend, or to relate to, and the truly philosophical comments seem few and far between. In places, the album seems to act as a satire of Benji: the title ‘Universal Themes’, could be interpreted as a play on the popularity of the last album, and how listeners seemed to connect so greatly to it’s themes of loss, grief and family. The album seems reactionary, which is understandable considering that it would have been written during the touring, and critic aftermath, of Benji.
It’s difficult to write about Mark Kozelek’s music in a objective manner, and that’s not just due to the personal nature of his lyrics. A few very well documented ‘incidents’ have occurred since Benji’s meteoric rise into the public atmosphere. Now, I’ve talked before about the need to separate art from artist, so I try hard not to let Mark’s public persona cloud my judgement of his work, but it’s a hard thing to do.
When you are a ‘confessional songwriter’, you are using yourself, and your emotions, to make connections to the audience around you. It seems like Mark has made it his mission to make a mess of the window that looks in on him. Maybe it would be more appropriate for Sun Kil Moon’s window to replaced with a two-way mirror, so Mark can look out at only himself, and not see the horrified faces of his dedicated audience.