[18 August 2009]
20 years into his career, Mark Kozelek might just be one of the best songwriters in America; he’s certainly one of the most consistent. Over six Red House Painters albums, three as Sun Kil Moon, and four under his own name (and that’s not counting the numerous EPs, limited edition/vinyl-only singles, compilations, live records, etc.) Kozelek has taken his early focus on loss, memory, geography, and lust and expanded it until that ground is truly his own and each new song seems like a new part fitting seamlessly into the story he’s always been telling you. A more prolific (and talented) interpreter than most of his peers, Kozelek can sing Modest Mouse songs or AC/DC ones, or his own songs about dead boxers, or his cat, or listening to ELP songs when he was younger and make it all sound like part of the same great tale of loss and remembrance that his more obviously personal material fits into.
Like most truly great songwriters, Kozelek doesn’t need to worry about switching things up or altering his sound. He has his own vocabulary, one developed enough that devotees don’t mind that most of his music “sounds the same” on the surface. Poised somewhere between Neil Young and Nick Drake, Kozelek takes more from the former than his robust Crazy Horse-era guitar and more from the latter than intricate acoustic guitar and an air of melancholy. Like Young, he’s equally at ease with either folky, gently acoustic music or barnstorming, crunchy rock and roll, and like Drake his lyrics are more nuanced and less depressing or one-dimensionally sad than his reputation suggests.
And while Kozelek is accomplished enough that he could write about nearly anything now, sadly life’s recently given him the kind of material no songwriter really wants. Katy, an ex-girlfriend and still Kozelek’s muse (the inspiration for “Katy Song”, “Carry Me Ohio”, “Summer Dress”, and many others), was diagnosed with cancer just after Sun Kil Moon’s 2003 album Ghosts of the Great Highway was released. Two months later she passed away. It took five years for Kozelek to release another album of original material, partly because he wanted the album to be “sort of paying tribute to someone, rather than just moaning about someone being gone” (as he discusses here). The result, 2008’s April, is one of modern music’s finest explorations of grief, loss, and regret.
Eight of April’s 11 songs can be found on the 14-track Lost Verses Live, the first wide-release live album Kozelek has put out in quite a while. Although it’s been assembled from seven different live shows, this album does feel like a good representation of what you’re likely to get at one of Kozelek’s concerts these days. So the preponderance of recent material at least feels authentic, then. The other six tracks break down into two each from Ghosts of the Great Highway and Tiny Voices, 2005’s LP of Modest Mouse covers, a cover of “Send in the Clowns” you can find on the recent rarities collection The Finally LP, and a single Red House Painters track—“Katy Song”, perhaps unsurprisingly. But that selection does raise the question of how valuable Lost Verses Live is to the Kozelek fan, who not only has these songs, but has most of them fresh in their mind.
That Lost Verses Live does succeed, and how it does, is indicated first by the fact that it’s Kozelek’s name on the cover. Kozelek has never been particularly precious about which band or name he releases music under, even admitting that he adopted Sun Kil Moon after a lengthy Red House Painters break mainly to get journalists paying attention again. But releases under his own name tend to be just Kozelek and an acoustic guitar, sometimes accompanied (as he is here) by Red House Painters Phil Carney on acoustic as well. Like most of Kozelek’s band outings, April moved easily from sparser, more delicate songs to louder, rougher or fuller ones, but here each song is just an intricately picked acoustic guitar or two and Kozelek’s rich, full voice. Older Red House Painters records sometimes found him twisting his voice into atonality or adenoidal ranges, but here Kozelek gives beautiful readings to his songs.
And they really are transformed, and not just obvious cases like the originally rocky “Salvador Sanchez”, revealed here as one of his loveliest melodies, or a closing “Katy Song” that not only ditches the original full-band arrangement but much of the original length. The wordless coda that ended the original over indelible, grinding electric guitar is not just truncated, but is accompanied by a delicate, almost translucent acoustic figure that makes the song feel like a lullabye rather than a lament. But just as effective, if not as immediately striking, is the way “Carry Me Ohio” and “Moorestown” are stripped of their gorgeous but already restrained arrangements so skillfully that when I first tossed on Lost Verses Live without looking at the liner notes I didn’t quite notice it was a solo acoustic disc. Kozelek could do a live album of all full band, amped-up versions of his songs and it would feel just as natural as this format, but given how firmly the emphasis has always been on Kozelek’s voice (literally and figuratively) in his bands, it often feels like nothing has changed in these live versions until you go back to the original records and notice that they weren’t quite this lithe and elegant.
Any fan of Kozelek’s body of work, with its sprawling album runtimes, multiple versions of songs, and playful appropriations of other artist’s songs (only Kozelek could make Modest Mouse’s irascible, rubbery “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” sound so wise and peaceful) won’t just be satisfied with these new versions, they’ll be thrilled to find Kozelek’s quieter side so fully and gorgeously represented here. With a more chronologically varied set list, in fact, this would make a fine introduction for the novice to Kozelek’s particular brand of heartache and solace, as long as they’re warned that normally he is perfectly capable of tearing it up in a manner Lost Verses Live doesn’t even come close to catching. But when what it does capture is so lovely, it’s tough to complain.