Sun Kil Moon – April

Mark Kozelek returns this April under the Sun Kil Moon moniker, releasing the aptly-titled April (the follow-up to his critically-lauded Ghosts Of The Great Highway album from 2003) on his own Caldo Verde record label. April is known as the “cruelest month” and “April showers bring May flowers”, and true to those adages, many of the songs on this album flow with Mark’s trademark inner emotional turbulence, supported by subtly-picked guitar runs that mirror his rambling and bittersweet vocal melodies.

Mark is accompanied by drummer Anthony Koutsos (formerly in Red House Painters), bassist Geoff Stanfield, percussionist David Revelli, violist Michi Aceret, and a host of guest vocalists, including Bonnie “Prince” Billy (aka Will Oldham), Ben Gibbard, and Eric Pollard, although one is hard-pressed to discern who is singing back-up vocals on which songs.

As with Mark’s other musical incarnations, whether as Red House Painters or under his own name, a fine-tuned and patient ear, and a good turn of the volume knob towards high, is required to fully appreciate the nuances of his music. Mark is not, and has never been, a purveyor of the catchy, three-minute pop song. His creations are lengthy, measured-pace, and develop over time, and his mainly autobiographical lyrics are just as important as the instrumental framework, if not more so (Mark recently re-released a hardcover book of his song lyrics titled Nights Of Passed Over).

Memories of Mark’s past live on in the present, continuing their existence through his reflective lyrics. Previous events in his life, the people he has been involved with, and the locales he has lived in and traveled through figure greatly in his ruminations, and it’s as if the barriers of time, distance, and departure that separate the past from the present have been compressed within his memory, so that the past is keenly undiminished and actively shapes his emotional landscape to this day.

While Mark’s songs may be slow-paced, low-key, and long, they are neither pools of placidity or founts of dirge-like despair. There is a restlessness to his reminiscing, as if he’s not resigned to the past and how it has affected him. There is a sense of urgency in his pained, yet mellifluous tone, as if the wounds and wonders of the past have not faded into the background of his mind over time, and it’s tellingly reflected in a lyric from Mark’s early Red House Painters’ song titled “Rollercoaster”, where he contemplates the time he spent at a state fair with someone he cared for, singing longingly that “I’ll never be able to relive this day / except in memory.” This haunting sentiment is a hallmark of all his songs, a reminder that the past is a constant presence in the present.

April opens with alt-country sound of “Lost Verses”, and Mark’s vocals are light, sweet, and tentative on the long verses, lifting up at the ends of phrases amid the gently strummed guitars and brushed cymbals. He sings of voices that “arrive and disappear” and that, with the approaching dawn, he’s “rising toward the light”, and his voice rises in kind on the chorus, wistfully, yet uplifting, as the guitar lines briefly fade, bringing his emotions into stark relief, in only for a moment.

By the second verse, a measured drum tempo kicks in, and by the third verse, melancholy viola is introduced and male background vocals shadow Mark’s main vocal line, as he uncovers buried feelings and memories within him, and, by extension, within the listener, by the mere mention of “touchstone” words or phrases that provoke an emotional response, evoking images of the “ocean”, “salt water”, and “April rain.” Mark sings of watching over loved ones and old friends in a high register, backed with lighter male vocals, and after the eight-minute mark, the song takes a detour as a indie-rock guitar line insinuates itself into the instrumental mix, picking up the pace and sounding like a Dinosaur Jr. riff, with its slightly distorted, but clean-burning sound. The guitar follows the base melodic line and doesn’t “rock out”, but it’s a pleasantly unexpected way to end the song.

“The Light” continues to follow this indie-rock thread with a fuzzy, low-key, repetitive rock guitar riff slowly circling the laid-back beat and cymbal tap, as Mark sing-talks in a plainer, mid-range tone. On certain parts of the vocal phrases, a bass guitar comes in, giving the proceedings more weight. As always, Mark extends the “verse, chorus, verse” format with meandering verses that eventually reach the chorus payoff of doubled vocals, with one line sung in a more vivid register, sweet, but pained, about how “this house feels like an old lost song / it calls for me to play along”, but “somehow I don’t belong.” The rock guitar gradually fades away, as two twangy guitars pick up the melodic line, and wander around with it against a laconic drumbeat for a while. Mark, along with the rock guitar, soon return, and it’s back to the repetitive, narrow instrumental structure of the short-phrase guitar riff penning in Mark’s “far-reaching, swaying, and free” lyrics and emotive vocal delivery.

The ghost of Mark’s previous band, Red House Painters, looms over “Lucky Man” (a shorter song at just under six minutes), with Mark’s voice moving through a range of tones, from low-register, dusky, and depressive to bright and delicately pensive, over the course of the song. Even the sound is reminiscent of Red House Painters, with the softly glistening, rolling, finger-picked guitar lines and absence of drum beat. Mark sounds more insular and poignant on this song, drawing the listener into his world of “sleepy gray skies”, and his visit to a place where “heaven’s church bells ring” and where “I didn’t know my purpose until I stepped inside.”

The next number, “Unlit Hallway”, is well-known to fans of Mark’s, due to the inclusion of a live version on Little Drummer Boy, an album of songs recorded in live settings and released under his name. This studio version is, superficially, close to the live cut, but differs markedly in its emotional impact. There are mostly the same instrumental aspects, with strummed guitar, piano runs, bass guitar, brushed cymbals, and steady-paced drumbeat, except for the addition of finger-picked banjo that gives the song a more country-style vibe. There is also the same elongated “verse, chorus, verse” structure, and lyrics of “walking down the unlit hallway of life / there’s hope, I know” and an angel that comforts and guides him, and that “I feel you near / like you’re still here.”

The deal-breaking difference is in the chorus sections, when Mark sings “Breathe, my love / wake, my love / hold me, my love”, along with higher-register, male backing vocals. On the live version, it’s just Mark, strongly pleading and pouring out his emotions for once, creating an impact based solely on the intensity of his delivery, and it’s breathtaking to hear. On this studio version, Mark holds himself back, coming across too under-the-breath soft in his murmuring vocal delivery, where his words, and emotions, aren’t accentuated clearly. What should be a cathartic chorus release sounds like another part of the restrained verse section.

“Heron Blue” is an interesting change of pace, a storytelling song that sounds like a narcotic Mark Lanegan murder ballad, with a guitar in the background picking out a dark, repetitive pattern and Mark sing-talking in a low register. There is no drumbeat, but an underlying tension runs through the song, and after a couple minutes, another, brighter guitar line is added, insistently dancing around the original, darker line. Mark takes on someone else’s perspective, describing characters and a room lit by candlelight, sing-talking with a grave inflection “Don’t cry my love, don’t cry no more / it overwhelms my breakin’ heart.” The song excels at creating an unsettling, minor-key mood, where Mark’s vocals darkly shine as he sings “it haunts me in my waking dreams / I cannot bear to leave”, sometimes against doubled vocals in a higher range that follow the melodic line, as well as an interplay of the “light and shade” guitars.

The live version of fan-favorite “Moorestown” can also be found on Little Drummer Boy, but the studio version here is just as compelling. This ode to a girl he cares for is classic Mark Kozelek, from the meandering instrumentals (although it is a short song at only four and a half minutes!), to his meditative recollections of the past, to his aching, but languid vocal tone, and the key words he chooses to conjure up the past. Great distances are covered, geographically, temporally, and in memory, as Mark sings of “salt water taffy at the Jersey shore” and that “we’d spend our days just driving ’round / old parking lots and neighborhoods” in Moorestown, New Jersey, against rolling guitar strum and an unobtrusive drum beat.

Mark treads much ground in his lyrics, as he follows this girl “across the earth”, from L.A. to New York, and from London to Kosovo to Kentucky to New Orleans, his voice wavering, but rising, as he reveals “I slept with her”, but that at some point she “moved away to Williamsburg” and as he reminisces, “looking past a cold long sea / can’t bear to wonder now” about the glowing lights in Moorestown and when he first knew her- and the pull of viola and other strings match the earnestness of Mark’s vocals.

Mark usually reins in his emotions on the verses of songs, but on the delicate “Harper Road”, another short song at under four minutes, he lilts angelically on a vocal note here and there on the verses, surrounded by the stream-like guitars that follow the contours of his voice. Again, there is no beat, just guitars, plucked viola, and Mark’s melancholy and fragile vocals that climb as he sighs “Don’t leave, my love / don’t leave my side.”

“Tonight The Sky” is Mark’s “rock song”, albeit, not in the traditional sense of soft verse, loud chorus, and blazing guitar solo. Mark usually doesn’t create short, compact numbers, and this song is no exception. He draws out the “verse, chorus, verse” structure with several verse phrases before getting to the chorus section. A steady drum beat starts it off, along with Mark’s plain vocals, and a burning, distorted, but contained guitar line that stays in the same groove for about two minutes.

Then the chorus kicks in and Mark sounds strong and opens up more vocally, sometimes with doubled vocals, reflecting outwardly instead of inwardly, singing “Tonight the sky will open for you”, and about natural landmarks like mountains and the ocean, against an equally strong rock guitar line. Halfway through the song, the guitar intensity picks up and Mark sings in a more ethereal tone, and then pushes his vocals out against two guitar lines, one of which rocks out more with a sustained frisson. The momentum slows and calms, then starts up again, cycling through more subdued, plain-vocal verses and short-knit loops of fiery guitar on the choruses.

A guest vocalist helps Mark out on the country-style “Like The River”, harmonizing in a higher tone on the chorus, against mellow-picked guitars and an erratic drum beat that doesn’t even sound like it’s being played at a consistent tempo. The pace goes from slow to slower, then back to slow again, with hushed vocals as Mark sings “faded away along with my thoughts”, even though the instrumentation continues on unevenly.

“Tonight In Bilbao” commences with flowing guitar strum, drum beat, an underlying heavier tone of stand-up bass, and Mark’s brighter vocal delivery, where, on the chorus sections, he sings with a shy upswing, emphasizing words like “Barcelona”, and focuses on a just-forming relationship (“she came in from the storm”). The guitars remain at the same pace through most of the song, and Mark submerges his words at the ends of phrases, as he sing-talks on the verses that “the train pulled away” and “I stared at faraway lights.” He builds up the chorus with several short, yearningly-delivered phrases as a subdued viola line comes in, full of regret and sadness. The rambling guitar quietly fades away, leaving a sparse beat, and plucked string notes, until the vocals return, with Mark singing hesitantly, lightly, and in short phrases. All of the instruments make a comeback by the end of the song, creating a smooth, but understated sonic mix.

The closing solo, acoustic “Blue Orchids” features gentle, stream-like guitar notes and low-key, but light vocals, as Mark sings more plainly on the verses, and twins with the guitar line melody on the chorus, singing of “last goodbyes.” Starting midway through the song, the guitar line takes on a Spanish feel as it fleetingly runs up the musical scale (this will happen twice more to the listener’s delight). Then the rambling guitars take up their delicate pattern again, as Mark lingers over the words “She comes in every morning…afternoon… evening / lays down beside me, softly breathing.”