Sun Kil Moon – Ghosts of the Great Highway

Sun Kil Moon
Ghosts of the Great Highway

Since leaving the once benevolent bosom of 4AD after the Red House Painters’ fourth long-player, Ocean Beach, way back in 1995, life hasn’t been made easy for followers of Mark Kozelek’s single-minded muse. Through a combination of record label misanthropy and willful contrariness, Kozelek has kept his ever-loyal admirers straining at the leash.
Flipping between labels (Island/Supreme, Badman, and Sub Pop) has led to his releases being scattered in retail outlets with near-careless abandon (particularly on European shores). Recording as both Red House Painters (for 1996’s Songs for a Blue Guitar and 2001’s Old Ramon) and as a solo artist (with 2000’s Rock ‘n Roll Singer mini-album being the most notable) has certainly foxed many already confused by Kozelek’s musical persona shifting. Couple such confusion with a heavy reliance on other people’s songs (with 2001’s solo LP What’s Next to the Moon, being almost entirely made-up of stripped-down AC/DC covers), and some moonlighting as an actor in Cameron Crowe’s 70s rock nostalgia flick Almost Famous, and it has become increasingly impossible to keep a clear trace on Kozelek’s remarkable – but erratic – talents. Even Kozelek loyalists have been wondering if it’s too much to ask for just proper one album, one band, and one new set of self-penned songs from one of the most (self) undervalued singer/songwriters of the last 15 years.
So when news broke that Kozelek was set to launch a new band – Sun Kil Moon – featuring erstwhile members of Red House Painters and American Music Club on yet another label (New York’s Jetset Records), there must have been more than a few sighs of disillusionment and despair from RHP fans old and new. However, those sighs are likely to turn into hard-won smiles as Sun Kil Moon’s surprisingly wonderful debut finally brings Kozelek songcraft back on to a steady course.
Building on the towering melodicism of his latter-day Red House Painters wares, whilst bringing forth the more concise song structures of his better solo work, has allowed Kozelek to subtly realign his musical beddings without having to sacrifice any of his songwriting prowess or undersell his painfully captivating voice. Gone too are the cover songs, along with some of the atypical 4AD family production values (the vocals are now lower in the mix and the instrumental layers are far more loose and rustic). The net result is a crisp, sometimes crunchy, and often lush collection of songs that show Kozelek at his best since the aforementioned (and much-overlooked) RHP opus, Songs for a Blue Guitar.
The gently unfolding “Glen Tipton” (bizarrely named after a member of Brit metallers Judas Priest) is a near-solo acoustic starter that touches on Kozelek’s perennial nostalgia for the teenager years he lost to drug addiction, before it slips into a chilling murder ballad-like narrative; “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 / But I like to dream about what might have been.” The impossibly pretty “Carry Me Ohio” which follows is classic Kozelek – gut-wrenchingly sad, curiously comforting, and impossibly graceful. A mellow mid-tempo number with chiming REM-like accompaniment (circa Automatic for the People that is), the song feels like a heartbreaker’s guilt-ridden confessional as he drives off down a rain-drenched road to face an uncertain fate; “Sorry that I could never love you back / I could never care enough in these last days.”
Things then lurch from delicacy to discord and then back to delicacy again; as “Carry Me Ohio” bleeds into the soaring Screaming Trees-flavoured chug of “Salvador Sanchez” before the listener is transported into a three-song suite of serene acoustic loveliness. The triumvirate of “Last Tide,” “Floating,” and “Gentle Moon” glides through the ether with heart-tugging strings, a gentle assortment of percussion, dextrous finger-picking, and some of Kozelek’s most adventurous and affecting vocals yet. This lilting three-song thread then leaps into the record’s most raucous rocker, “Lily and Parrots,” that cranks-out a Crazy Horse-meets-Queens of the Stone Age cacophony with almost jubilant aplomb. Any stalwart RHP fanatic concerned that Kozelek has given up on his doom-laden epics, should rest easy enough with the 14 or so minutes that it takes to unfurl the darkly enigmatic “Duk Koo Kim” (previously heard as two solo versions on a rare 10″ on Cameron Crowe’s Vinyl Records), though what die-hards will make of the busy and indeed joyful Latino instrumental “Si. Paloma” which follows it remains to be seen. Proceedings close perversely with an acoustic reworking of “Salvador Sanchez” (re-christened as “Pancho Villa”), clearly a song Kozelek loves so much he had to do it twice, and who are we to begrudge him of such repetition when the results are just so damn lovely?
Ghosts of the Great Highway may not be quite the great lost Red House Painters album many have been waiting for, but neither is it burdened with any need to fit a set idea of what Mark Kozelek-led album should sound like. Instead, it is a record that channels Kozelek’s angelic-voice and songwriting genius through an eclectic array of diligently arranged but instinctively played set of songs that touch deeper and deeper with every addiction-inciting spin. Long may his ghosts haunt our highways, whatever band name he chooses as a self-deprecating decoy.