Mark Kozelek's obsessions shift into splendid overdrive
Is there such a thing as closure? Crime writer James Ellroy’s mother was murdered when he was 10 years old, and Ellroy has spent his entire career writing his way out of it with no expectation of emotional settlement. It’s made him who he is. Chances are Mark Kozelek—formerly of Red House Painters, currently of Sun Kil Moon—will also write his way through memory and fate until the end of his days. His Ohio childhood, his classic-rock album collection, his love for the guitar, his friends and especially the death of loved ones—including the tragic passing of an important early muse—have made Kozelek the songwriter he is. He takes solace in the beautiful landscapes that surround him. He travels to faraway cities and dreams of home, and then he comes home and dreams of elsewhere.
He’s always been obsessed by longing and desire. 1992’s accomplished Red House Painters demo-tape-turned-debut-album Down Colorful Hill was a Technicolor tragedy filled with tortured romances and aching childhood memories, a perfect fit for the boutique 4AD label that released it. The young man who composed that record has changed over the years. Nothing dramatic, no abrupt refutations of his past; just a deepening, a settling into the man he has become. Kozelek’s music is now warmer, more able to reconcile its classic-rock roots within its ethereal structures. The reverb canyons and domineering vocals have given way to richer guitar textures and sweet, anguished mumbles. His songs remain personal, as likely to express shockingly candid details as to wrap them in personal symbolism only he can unravel. When Kozelek sings “I promised always through me she would shine” on April’s 10-minute centerpiece “Tonight the Sky,” you picture the man alone, howling at the moon, shaking his fists in frustration at the universe.
This sense of loneliness haunts Kozelek’s best work, and it’s in full force throughout April, arguably the finest album of his career. The word “arguably” makes me wince (just say it, dammit), but Kozelek’s work has proven over the years that it reveals itself slowly. What grabs you at first is the simple, gorgeous hook, which turns out to be a gateway drug to the deeper mysteries that power his music. When I reviewed the second and third Red House Painters albums—self-titled but known as Rollercoaster and Bridge, respectively, for their covers—in Rolling Stone in 1993, I recorded certain obvious truths (his unorthodox approach to covers, his overwhelmingly somber lyrics and melodies) but I missed the mark when it came to what I now realize is his driving force: I criticized his obsessive nature. I thought he overreached.
More than a decade later, I understand that this obsession is the core. Kozelek requires a certain amount of time and space to make magic happen. The songs require their massive lengths, hypnotic repetitions and layers of meticulous guitar licks in order for their claustrophobic minimalism to perfect its tension, as on “Heron Blue,” which takes place in a hospital where a loved one dies and the funeral hymns echo in his head. In “Lost Verses,” the album’s near 10-minute opener, Kozelek walks the streets of San Francisco, a ghost observing old friends through their windows, seeing their vulnerabilities. “I want them to know how I love them so,” he sings. He’s not yet raging at the dying of the light, but he knows he’s on the clock.
“The Light,” at nearly eight minutes, follows. The similar feel—the bucking, unhurried rhythm, the dusty electric-guitar tone and the slowly descending melody that underline the mournful, rootless sentiment of the lyrics—signifies a mature writer chasing themes within a self-defined vernacular. Kozelek never aspires to write anything as thematically grand as a “concept album,” but he consciously allows the songs to stand as epics. (Six of the album’s 11 tunes rack up at least six minutes, and nothing is short of four.) The album’s smaller pieces are no less essential. “Moorestown” remembers the idyllic days of a new relationship. “Unlit Hallway,” with the addition of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy to its angelic choir, captures a hazy twilight.
In another era (the one Kozelek remembers as a teenager listening to Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s “Lucky Man”), this would be a double album with a cardboard gatefold layout—to best present the artful photography—and four vinyl sides to sift through. In this age of ProTools and tightly compressed sonic ambushes where so many bands concern themselves only with loudness, Kozelek sounds nearly old-fashioned. Guitars warm up in the stereo mix and choirs hide in the record’s depths. These technical advantages make the emotional translations more effective.
The aforementioned “Tonight the Sky” chugs with a sublime Neil Young “Ohio” meets “Like a Hurricane” guitar riff that explodes during the climax, where Kozelek lays it on the line: “I woke up every morning not believing she was gone.” The guitars are thrown to the max, but then shift to near silence and settle on a one-note cry of despair. At that moment, words can’t express what the spirit has been sentenced to feel. Kozelek, however, will never stop attempting to translate it. Whether it’s the physical displacement in “Tonight in Bilbao,” where the road-weary musician travels throughout Europe only to find peace back home in San Francisco, or the shock at the realization of an emotional numbness that hides in “The Light,” Kozelek is forever doomed to seek a closure that will remain one song away from realization and forever out of reach.