Cultivating an unilateral feud with American arena rock revivalists War On Drugs, delivering sharp dressings-down of unruly audience members and, most recently, berating a female journalist in allegedly offensive terms during a concert: Mark Kozelek’s well-earned reputation as perhaps the ultimate grinch of the art-rock world is at odds with the self-deprecating good cheer and grumpy charm emanating from the stage tonight.
Then again, the singer, guitarist and songwriter operating as Sun Kil Moon has reason to feel upbeat during his first Leeds appearance since 1992.
Last year’s Benji gained Kozelek wider renown after a lengthy career in the indie margins both as the captain of seminal 90s San Francisco sadcore pioneers Red House Painters and solo. The album’s success is evident in tonight’s show having been upgraded to the considerably roomier Irish Centre since the original December date at the Brudenell was pulled at the last minute.
Quite how Kozelek feels about the acclaimed album that boosted his profile and dominates tonight’s generous two and a half hour set is unclear. “Here’s another song off Benji, the album that put me on the map,” he jests in one of many disparaging comments about the record’s impact on his musical career. “Finally!” an audience member responds.
Hecklers can generally expect a bumpy ride but Kozelek - having already thanked the audience graciously for listening so raptly, as well as repeatedly stressing that he’s actually not such a bad guy despite much-publicised reports to the contrary - guffaws warmly. There are no similar efforts to put us at ease in the choice of material. As has been Kozelek’s habit lately, the set consists entirely of material released since 2012’s Among The Leaves. This album marked the point when Kozelek ditched the metaphors and other disguises that characterise conventional songwriting, opting instead to operate in confessional storytelling and streams of consciousness that detail the songwriter’s life in detail that’s either hypnotically exhaustive or just plain exhausting, depending on who you ask and the song in question.
More surprisingly, Kozelek seems to be weaning himself off guitar, forsaking acoustic guitar (a former weapon of choice) entirely. Most of the music is handled by an excellently atmospheric if occasionally ramshackle three -piece band featuring Neil Halstead of Slowdive, freeing Kozelek to focus on singing, extra percussion and hand movements to keep the accompanists on the correct path as the often rambling excursions make their unpredictably circuitous trek towards the finish line. When the free-flowing, unfiltered approach works, the results are mesmerising, squeezing plenty of universal resonance from material that’s occasionally - few would choose to publicly disclose their formative sexual experiences with the quite the candour of Dogs - almost foolhardy in its naked, artless honesty. The added rock dynamics can work a treat: starring an impromptu guest slot by Justin Broadrick of Godflesh and Napalm Death, Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes gains a steely edge that suits the stark subject matter.
The band’s gentle ebb and flow adds potency to the epic I Saw The Film The Song Remains The Same, beautifully handled despite Kozelek’s quip that he’s suffering from mid-set fatigue. Best of all, the low-lit barn dance glow and sway of He Always Felt Like Dancing, Kozelek delivering an exquisitely nuanced vocal from the back of the stage, is almost unbearably beautiful; that this shiver-inducing master-class in heartbreak follows an unsteady but fun duet with an audience member called Rachel on Sonny & Cher evergreen I Got You Babe says a lot about the diversity of moods on offer tonight, even if the material is drawn from a rather narrow pool for an artist who made his debut in the late 80s.
Elsewhere, things get more divisive. The skronk-friendly abstractions and muscular riff antics of Possum and Ali/Spinks 2 (off box-fresh new album Universal Themes) can be difficult to grasp for the uninitiated. More seriously, the vocal effects and punk bark Kozelek’s now cultivating make it tricky to decipher the lyrics at times, clearly an issue for a songwriter who loves words. Lots and lots of words.
The guttural growl - uncomfortably reminiscent of Rocky Balboa in full bellow mode - even pops up briefly during an otherwise disarmingly tender encore of I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love, another startlingly direct dispatch straight from the heart that makes the new material’s occasional detours into banal journal entries seem disappointingly inconsequential.
Even so, it’s impressive to see Kozelek continue to push the boundaries of his songwriting and musical templates, refusing to sit still and pander to anyone’s expectations, even though he now has an audience beyond a modest cult following to alienate.
Gig date: June 3