by Nicholas Otte (@ottenicholas)
While in theory it is exciting to pair like and unlike artists to see how they might function together, the results are often a mixed bag. Cross-genre collaborations – the real life manifestations of speculative conversations over pints of beer at the back of the venue during set break – almost never result in the masterpiece that exists within the imagination of a fan. Who remembers that mess Metallica and Lou Reed made together? Probably not too many of you, which should say plenty about the likelihood of a botched result, even with the most promising ingredients. While this collaborative effort between post-metal shoegazers Jesu and confessional crooner Sun Kil Moon doesn’t quite creep its way toward words like masterpiece or classic, it is an impressively rich and engaging musical experiment – a coalescence of disparate sensibilities that form something new, if not entirely unique.
Fans of either band will find much of what they love on display here, even if you find yourself firmly in one camp and unaware or unappreciative of the other. Both parties walk a fine line between retaining their identities and stepping outside of their relative comfort zones. In this way Jesu/Sun Kil Moon comes across as quietly urgent lightening in a bottle – but that is not to say this is a particularly easy listen. It is heavy both in presentation and in content, and the feeling that these groups are pushing one another into new territory is palpable, even when they push too hard and fall flat.
Though the greater part of this album does not lean on metal structures and sounds, any fears of an over-mellowing on the part of Jesu are dispelled with the opening track, “Good Morning My Love.” The soothing yet desperate melody of the guitars, clothed in definitively post-metal fuzz, allow plenty of room for Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelic to muse and gripe, two things he does quite well. Since 2014’s critically acclaimed Benji, Kozelic has fully established the persona of a caring rocker with a common soul, perpetually spitting observations and emotional quandaries like chewing tobacco. His style, often brimming with a sense of desperate frustration, works well over this more aggressive music, provided in spades by Jesu throughout the first half of the record.
Jesu’s Justin Broadrick seems comfortable with Kozelic taking a front-man position, and at times his music feels like a natural backdrop for Kozelic’s tortured style. This also allows Broadrick to be a little more playful in his contribution than Kozelic, who stays pretty much in line with his previously established voice – save for a few yelps and hollers. Jesu has certainly released heavier music, but their work here is meditative, thoughtful, and brutal without ever sacrificing the more serene emotions that pervade this record. While there is plenty of slow distorted chugging on the part of Broadrick, it is tempered by a generally positive outlook and intensity that is never entirely sinister. This is likely inspired in great part by Kozelic’s lyrics, which find him exploring more genial territory here than he has in recent memory. There’s plenty of darkness – pervading themes of death, loss, and imagined though perhaps inevitable decay – but there is also a preoccupation with love and a refreshing sense of optimism, which dynamically complicates this record in an unexpected and sometimes captivating way.
Despite thematic shifts, Kozelic doesn’t dial back his stream of consciousness, corner of the mouth style – and thankfully so. His subdued, delicately corrosive mumbling is sometimes as powerful as a guttural scream. Just as in his other work, the more memorable of Kozelic’s lines come from his vulnerable moments, rather than those in which he is angry or annoyed. There are all his signature moves: contemplative explorations of the mundane (doing sit-ups and waiting for an answer on a dead phone line) and a veritable deluge of name drops (everyone from Manny Pacquiao to Tenacious D), which add some much needed levity. He has plenty of vitriol to spout at those around him, calling out vinyl hipsters and anyone who has a bad word to say about him. For those familiar with Kozelic this layer of contempt should come as no surprise. This is the same man who recently had an all out war of words with a prominent journalist, members of The War On Drugs, and a rowdy North Carolina crowd who he named “fucking hillbillies.” The moodier character of Kozelic is what, for many, makes his music so attractive. If he were to suppress or hide his more negative, sometimes odious impulses, he wouldn’t be half the artist he has become. Still, the moments in which he indulges them risk making him seem sanctimonious rather than relatable. On this record he is, as always, best when he sticks to what he cares about.
Jesu/Sun Kil Moon is bolstered by some guest contributions from Modest Mouse’s own curmudgeon crooner Isaac Brock, and an appearance by Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell on the lengthy “Exodus.” There is ambition here, but nothing particularly groundbreaking. This song, for all its good intent – Kozelic writes about the sadness of losing a child, inspired by the recent death of Nick Cave’s son – never quite equals the invigorating energy of the first few tracks. The power here is all in the emotion, which is moving, but leaves the listener yearning for a marriage between the power of this track and that of the heavier cuts.
The songs that work best are the ones where neither pole of this group holds back on their sensibilities, but rather meet happily (or drearily) in the middle. Songs like “Sally,” an incredibly straightforward hard rock song, are more effective than some of the quieter forays into so-called art rock. There is already so much artistry to be found in this collaboration that it is most effective when Jesu and Sun Kil Moon let go of the wheel and allow the strangely monstrous rig they have built together to drive itself.