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Don't Call It a Comeback 

He's been here for years, but few expected singer/songwriter Mark Kozelek to deliver such a rousing new album

Wednesday, Jan 21 2004
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Written, recorded, and performed almost entirely by Kozelek, Songs for a Blue Guitar, released in 1996, confirmed the hearsay that band and label were no longer hitting it off. To let the rumors tell it, Watts-Russell took issue with an (admittedly self-indulgent) guitar solo in the middle of track three, "Make Like Paper," which pushed it past the 12-minute mark. The extra-long song wasn't unprecedented -- Down Colorful Hill's title track ran nearly 11 minutes, and every RHP album had one, as does Ghosts -- but the dispute over this particular opus resulted in the Painters' splitting from 4AD. The group found a home for Blue Guitar at Supreme Recordings -- a subsidiary of Island Records, itself a subsidiary of Polygram (don't ya just love major labels?) -- which finally put out the record in the summer of '96.

But that delay was nothing compared to the problems with Old Ramon, Blue Guitar's follow-up, which didn't hit shelves till the spring of 2001, despite its completion in early '98. That debacle was the result of Universal's acquisition of Polygram and the subsequent reorganization. Kozelek ultimately had to buy back the rights to his songs so that Sub Pop could release them.

By that point, what was left of the Painters' momentum was gone. Throughout it all, Kozelek was working on and releasing new material -- his album of AC/DC covers (What's Next to the Moon), for example, as well as contributions to various tributes and compilations. He even snagged a role as the bass player for the fictional band Stillwater in Cameron Crowe's movie Almost Famous. (My favorite line of his: "Hey, Russell, check it out: high school cheerleaders. Pull over!") But while that work might have paid the bills and kept him busy, it was starting to seem like the floundering of an artist who didn't know what to do next.

When I ask Kozelek if this new record could be considered his comeback, at first he says no. But then he thinks about it.

"There was such a buildup to [Old Ramon]," he says, "that by the time people got it they were like, 'Well, that was OK.' It didn't get a big response. Then, with the AC/DC record, it was just me playing solo acoustic, doing cover songs. ... I haven't done an interview with SF Weekly since 1999, back when I had this little part in Almost Famous and they interviewed me about that, and in fact they ripped apart the AC/DC solo record, too." (Unjustly, in my opinion; it's amazing to hear Kozelek render that band's dirty swagger as plaintive ballads.) "So all of the sudden," he continues, "people are asking me questions again, when they haven't for five years. So there is a feeling of come- back or a feeling that something new is happening."

But Kozelek is being modest: Ghosts of the Great Highway is currently No. 2 on CMJ's College Radio chart, and has been for almost a month. It has also received rave reviews in magazines around the world -- the vaunted hipster bible Pitchfork.com called it "the triumphant sound of an industry underdog finally making good on his past potential." What makes Ghosts such an achievement is that, for the first time in a long, long while -- arguably since the Red House Painters' pair of self-titled LPs from 1993 -- Kozelek is not only doing what he does best, i.e., playing sincere, earthy folk-rock, but also doing it better than he's ever done it before, pushing it further, taking it in new directions.

Where Painters albums like Blue Guitar and Ocean Beach tended to ramble, Ghosts is focused, its songs sequenced carefully and artfully. Enticed by the meditative, solo-acoustic opener "Glenn Tipton," you follow Kozelek through the crunchy rock of "Salvador Sanchez"; the 14-minute opus "Duk Koo Kim"; and the whimsical, Van Morrison-esque instrumental "Si Paloma"; arriving finally at a gentler, send-you-on-your-way version of "Salvador Sanchez," retitled "Pancho Villa."

A master arranger (the AC/DC makeovers were an exercise in perfecting that art), Kozelek shades his ruminations eloquently, adding a touch of xylophone here ("Carry Me Ohio"), a mandolin riff there ("Glenn Tipton"), and even warm, evocative swatches of strings ("Last Tide," "Gentle Moon"). These hues are used sparingly, though, with most of the album based around acoustic guitars, brushed drums, and Kozelek's vocals, which have reached their zenith, having evolved from the desperate, almost Robert Smith-like cries of Colorful Hill to the rich, leathery tenor we find here.

But the lyrics are where we see Kozelek's biggest strides. Unlike the earnest but sentimental diary entries from songs past, the lines on Ghosts paint a more impressionistic picture, hinting at themes of nostalgia and the passing of time with a heretofore nonexistent composure. Compare the anxious, distraught lines of "24" above to those of "Glenn Tipton": "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 does/ Just like my dad did when he was home/ Staying up late/ Staying up alone/ Just like my dad did when he was thinking,/ 'How fast the years go by.'"

As Kozelek is quick to point out, the common thread is honesty -- an uncompromising desire to present his own, oftentimes excruciatingly personal, truth.

"Even though '24' is really embarrassing to listen to now," he says, "it was who I was then. That was my life: I was working at a hotel, at the front desk, and I was tripping out about my fucking future, 'cause I didn't go to college like everyone else. What if things didn't happen to me and this dream I had with music?"

About The Author

Garrett Kamps

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