Mark Kozelek does it again. His work with Red House Painters was poignant. His prior solo efforts, If You Want Blood and What’s Next to the Moon , both released in 2001, and Rock ‘n’ Roll Singer, in 2000, which include reinterpretations of John Denver and ACDC songs, were surprising.
Now, the Red House Painters’ guitarist/singer has formed a new
band, Sun Kil Moon, and released another meticulous, dramatic and
compelling album, Ghosts of the Great Highway.
Kozelek re-asserts himself as a proficient storyteller on Ghosts,
chronicling the random, often mundane details that populate a person’s
past. The past mixes with the present on the opening track, “Glenn
Tipton” (named after the Judas Priest guitarist), and Kozelek creates a
reflective atmosphere through his precisely-chosen historical details.
The line between personal and public experience blurs (as it does in
memory), allowing the listener to make his or her own connection to the
songs (or past): “I put my feet up on the coffee table / I stay up late
watching cable / I like old movies with Clark Gable just like my dad
To complicate things further, Kozelek’s own biography of
adolescent drug-addiction punctuates the dire elements in his verses.
He undercuts these harmless details with his own unsettling (and
personal?) experiences: “I buried my first victim when I was nineteen /
Went through her bedroom and the pockets of her jeans / And found her
letters that said so many things that really hurt me bad / I never
breathed her name again.”
Glimpses of Nick Drake’s internal and Neil Young’s external landscapes are caught in Ghosts‘
beautiful string arrangements (“Last Tide” and “Floating”) and
smoldering, guitar-driven ballads (“Carry Me Ohio” and “Salvador
On “Lily and Parrots,” Kozelek and bassist Geoff Stanfield
(Black Lab) turn up the amps, and assume the post-punk formula. But
they follow with one of the album’s highlights: the sprawling,
fourteen-minute “Duk Koo Kim,” which was originally released as a
ten-inch on Cameron Crowe’s Vinyl Records. (Kozelek also starred in
Crowe’s Almost Famous … remember the bass player who ogles the pack of co-ed joggers?)
Even at Ghosts‘ most fevered points, Kozelek is never
urgent with his delivery. A skilled hand is obviously at work as he
navigates through each song. The seemingly associative references begin
to patch themselves together; they accumulate to form a cohesive —
both melodically and thematically — landscape of a history.
After the enchanting instrumental “Si, Paloma,” Ghosts
arrives full circle to conclude with “Pancho Villa.” The melody of
“Salvador Sanchez” reappears, except this time Kozelek strips the
sludgy distortion of the original track and replaces it with a soothing
acoustic guitar and breathy vocals (incidentally Sanchez was a
featherweight boxing champion who died in a car accident at age 23).
As “Salvador Sanchez arrived and vanished,” Kozelek will
eventually vanish. Of course, you and I will, too. But, I suspect this
refreshing and somber album, unlike many current fly-by hype acts on
the music scene, will be lauded for some time to come.