“Sunshine in Chicago”
Daniel Levin Becker
Two decades into a career spent elaborating a redolent, sepia-tinted musical sensibility, Mark Kozelek seems uniquely unqualified to comment on this modern life. And yet here is “Sunshine in Chicago,” a single released this February in advance of the fifth album by his post–Red House Painters project, Sun Kil Moon. It is a just-before-bed-journal-entry of a song, at two and a half minutes noticeably concise (Kozelek seems to make a point of being long-winded): he arrives in Chicago, takes a walk, prepares to play a show, thinks about the passage of time. “And I looked up at the marquee / and hey, it was my name,” he murmurs with a world-weary sort of wonderment as he recalls a stroll down Lincoln Avenue. “Next to Julie Holland, / think that was her name.”
When, at the end of the second verse—the song has six—Kozelek says that he “just got in the door from / Ontario,” he is still any weary traveler, hanging up any fashion of felt hat in his hotel room; it still registers tertiarily at best that he might be arriving from an Ontario where the people of the twenty-first century live and work, a place with airports and sports bars and wi-fi hot spots. One verse later, though, and he has name-dropped an actual person; he has gotten that person’s name wrong (it’s Jolie Holland); and he has rhymed name with name. It has taken him all of one minute and eleven seconds to morph from Gabriel García Márquez into Kanye West.
The song’s second half plays the same bait-and-switch trick, only more explicitly: sunshine in Chicago, Kozelek tells us in verse four, “makes me think about my dad. / It was eight or nine siblings I am told that he had.” For a moment, we return to a broad-stroked abstraction of the sprawling American family, bus trips and bygone summers—and then he appears to think better of it, as though resolving to go on airing what’s on his mind as a person, not as a storyteller. “Sunshine in Chicago makes me feel pretty sad,” he says.
My band played here a lot in the ’90s when we had
lots of female fans, and fuck, they all were cute.
Now I just sign posters for guys in tennis shoes.
Kozelek’s ahistorical aesthetic should not be mistaken for a lack of candor; much of the rest of Among the Leaves, the new Sun Kil Moon album, recounts the drudgery of touring life with the same precision we get here. What is wonderful about “Sunshine in Chicago,” aside from its simplicity and its concision and its single, plaintive enjambment—that moment, above, where the poet loses himself and forgets both art and artifice—is how calmly, how calmingly, Kozelek gives us a glimpse of arrogance and resignation. It’s mildly unbecoming and, in the context of his stock-in-trade wistfulness, thrillingly true. It’s an inverted humblebrag, as it were, all the better for winding up just sort of humble, and a bracing slap of reality from someone who never even seemed all that acquainted with it.
Author’s birthplace: Massillon, Ohio; Author’s favorite city to perform in, according to an interview with Pitchfork: Asheville, North Carolina; Author’s favorite venue: Great American Music Hall, San Francisco; Origin of Sun Kil Moon moniker: Korean bantamweight boxer Moon Sung-Kil; Other boxers invoked in songs by author: Kim Duk-Koo, Salvador Sánchez, Rubén Olivares, Pancho Villa; Movies in which author has appeared: Almost Famous, Shopgirl, Vanilla Sky; Author’s acting credit in Vanilla Sky: Dude, Fix Your Face Guy