At a recent Music Hall of Williamsburg performance, Mark Kozelek dismissed Brooklyn as “a town of clones” before declaring himself, without a hint of self-deprecation, an “original.” If anyone in the audience felt otherwise, they kept it to themselves. Kozelek, over the course of his career, has earned the right to say such things. Who but an original would pursue the same single-mindedly melancholic vision for close to two decades, let alone also release an album of AC/DC covers?
Kozelek grew up in Massilon, Ohio. He skipped town before hitting 20, but he never forgot where he came from. His discography is brimming with odes to innocence since lost (although, as the story goes, Kozelek lost his when he was absurdly young — he’s said to have been drug-addicted by age 10). He’d record six increasingly less experimental albums with Red House Painters throughout the ’90s before resurfacing in 2003 with timeless Americana under the Sun Kil Moon moniker.
Engaging with Kozelek’s discography is a major time commitment. His albums are long (most hit the 70-minute mark) and filled — especially in the Red House Painters days — with songs that take more than a few listens to reveal their pleasures. Then there’s just the magnitude of his output: nine albums of original material, plus just as many rarities collections, live albums, cover albums, and EPs. Exploring a two-decades-long career without a roadmap can be daunting. We realize that, and so we have provided a guide to Kozelek’s essential albums.
1) Red House Painters: Red House Painters I (4AD, 1993)
In 1993, The Simpsons was approaching its satirical peak. But if we’re to judge the artist by the art (always a risky proposition), it’s a safe bet Kozelek wasn’t a big fan. 1993 was the year Kozelek and his Red House Painters released their two eponymous albums (nicknamed, respectively, Rollercoaster and Bridge), neither of which possess even a tiny shred of Generation X’s alleged irony (that is, depending on how you interpret Bridge‘s cover of “The Star Spangled Banner”). Red House Painters I is Kozelek’s first major artistic statement, a 76-minute monument to the themes and obsessions he’d spend the next two decades exploring (albeit from a less tortured perspective). Red House Painters had to live with the “slowcore” tag for the duration of its career, but that was really only true on this record: the 12-minute “Mother,” with its haunted guitars and tormented, near-infantile whines, shows the difference between “pensively staring out the window on a rainy day” sad and “every moment spent on this earth is a test from satan” sad. But songs like “Mother” and “Katy’s Song” serve just one important role in an ultimately diverse whole. You could spend an entire season (ideally winter) losing yourself in the sublime folk-pop of bookends “Grace Cathedral Park” and “Brown Eyes,” or the heavenly choir of “Strawberry Hill,” or the delicately daubed, near-painterly fuzz of “Rollercoaster.
2) Red House Painters: Songs for a Blue Guitar (Island, 1996)
The legend behind this one is that 4AD head Ivo Watts-Russel, finding this record’s lengthy guitar solos ill-suited to his label’s aesthetic, refused to release it. Whatever the truth is, the album eventually found a home on Supreme — the record label of John Hughes, another artist with a singular soft-focus vision and a near-unhealthy obsession with his Midwestern childhood. “That’s when friends were nice/ To think of them just makes you feel nice,” Kozelek sings on album opener “Have You Forgotten.” If you can find a simple poetry in that couplet, or a simple beauty in the song’s almost unvarying, hypnotizing guitar strums, then you’ll probably find a lot to like on this album. It’s not hard to see why this record wasn’t for Ivo. Here, Kozelek abandons the artsy, experimentalist affectations of his output up to that point, in favor of the sort of acoustic Americana he’d deepen with Sun Kil Moon.
3) Sun Kil Moon: Ghosts of the Great Highway (Jet Set, 2003)
Ghosts of the Great Highway feels like the product of an avant-garde filmmaker deciding to go Hollywood, only to end up with the best — and most accessible — work of their career. Here, we have high production values, some semblance of plot (“Glenn Tipton” is narrated from the perspective of a serial killer, albeit a serial killer who thinks a lot like Mark Kozelek), and a couple of truly gorgeous setpieces, “Carry Me Ohio” towering high above the already collosal pack.Ghosts came out around the same time that institutions like Fox Searchlight, The O.C., and NPR were turning similar, lesser acts into names your mother would recognize. That “Carry Me Ohio” never recieved “New Slang” levels of recognition is either (depending on how you consume music) a crime or a relief.
4) Sun Kil Moon: April (Caldo Verde, 2008)
Six years passed between the release of Ghosts of the Great Highway and April, and with good reason. In an interview conducted around the time of April‘s release, Kozelek revealed that his ex-girlfriend Katy — his life’s great muse, and the titular character of “Katy’s Song” — had passed away toward the end of the Ghosts recording sessions. What could have been one long, anguished dirge became, with patient reflection, one of the gentlest and most inviting albums of Kozelek’s career. Like Rollercoaster, this is an album you could spend an entire season exploring — except this time, that season should, ideally, be spring. This album, also like Rollercoaster, is less about hooks and melodies (although those are certainly present) than about getting lost in the array of achingly beautiful guitar tones that carry songs like “Moorestown” and “Tonight in Bilbao.” That Kozelek could release an album as vital as April 16 years into his career speaks well for the next 16.