Mark Kozelek can be maddening. In his various iterations—acoustic, electric, Red House Painters, solo—there are degrees of transcendence which clash and intersect at odd angles with his whims. There’s humor and whimsy and virtuosic playing, but getting there often involves getting through. Many songs in the man’s oeuvre could stand an editor: as good as the riffs are, the sentiments, the last three minutes don’t always add to the conversation. Usually, anyway. When the listener’s mood syncs up with the music’s tone, the mopery can be glorious, the indulgence shifting in self from songwriter to fan. Other times, you might want to be able to listen to one of the recs with another human being in the room. Seemingly ironic covers are delivered deadpan; whole albums of same (like the Modest Mouse cover record) make you wonder if the joke is on you for buying.
After “disbanding” Red House Painters following Old Ramon, Kozelek started Sun Kil Moon. Their debut, Ghosts of the Great Highway is a focused display of musicianship and songwriting which ranks with the man’s best.
The album starts with “Glenn Tipton,” which showcases both Kozelek’s pop chops and his quirky sense of humor (“some like Jim Nabors / some like Bobby Vinton / I like ‘em both”). As is often the case, though, there’s more than what lies on the surface: after ruminating, charmingly, on family and neighborhood, the narrative—which, as listeners, we’re predisposed to think is Kozelek—shifts tone, even as his voice remains steady, revealing the exploits of a serial killer (“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”). It’s a neat trick, gaining our sympathy as listeners before upending our expectations, forcing us to deal with a humanized narrator who turns out to be unworthy of any sympathy.
“Salvador Sanchez,” a song about a Mexican boxer, treads on guitar territory familiar to Red House Painters enthusiasts, reprising some of the sloppy neo-Ginn skronk so prominent in Made Like Paper, RHP’s 1996 album. The guitar solo on that song, five minutes long, apocryphally got RHP kicked off of 4AD. But here, single sloppy notes are stretched to maximum clanging and squalling effect, simulating the haze of combat.
So yeah. It’s tough to be a fan, but when albums like this come along, the odd notes of the overlong / overthought records are forgotten–the tough albums, in other words, become a nifty analogue for Kozelek’s career. Calculated or not, the meanderings and missteps often prove interesting, especially within the context of the man’s career. But with that said, Ghosts should appeal to all, whether vinyl-hoarding fans or occasional spectators.
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