With his first album of new material in over five years, Mark Kozelek winds up playing to his strengths and offering little innovation on his trademark acoustic yearnings.
On the Red House Painters' 1992 debut Down Colorful Hill, Mark Kozelek masterfully expressed his fears of growing old on "24", that album's undeniable centerpiece:
And I thought at 15
That I'd have it down by 16
And 24 keeps breathing in my face
Like a mad whore
And 24 keeps pounding at my door
Set against a stark acoustic backdrop, Kozelek's pained everyman croon drove the point home, that song serving as a eulogy for the innocence of youth, youth that has now faded into nothing but a pained memory. Some 16 years later, a matured, world-weary Kozelek attacks the issue again, looking back on his past and bluntly stating that "those days poured out faster than rounds from a gun". All those years ago, the age of 24 was looming over him, taunting with a threat of menace. On April, the third album from Kozelek's post-Red House Painters band Sun Kil Moon, he masterfully articulates the dour feeling of the midlife crisis by stating a simple, personal truth: "I have all these memories, I don't know what for."
Kozelek, of course, is one of rock music's long-standing figures of melancholy, and his slow, calculated ballads are universal due to their complete specificity. When constant artistic head-butts with record labels lead to the long-delayed release of the Red House Painter's Old Ramon, Kozelek figured that he had taken enough, soon releasing delightfully off-center solo records (including a stunning all-AC/DC covers disc) and forming his own Caldo Verde record label. In 2003, Kozelek's new band (Sun Kil Moon) debuted with Ghosts of the Great Highway, a masterful, gorgeous album that showed that played to all of Kozelek's strengths: yearning ballads of unrequited love ("Carry Me Ohio") mixed with surprisingly poppy detours into guitar rock that were alternately brisk ("Lily and Parrots") and psychedelic ("Duk Koo Kim"). He then squandered his good tidings with a poorly-received album of Modest Mouse covers (Tiny Cities) which was then followed by an unusual period of silence that brought out nothing more than a standard-issue live album from a moniker-free Kozelek. In a way, April is really Sun Kil Moon’s sophomore disc, being as how it’s his first offering of new material in about five years.
Yet right from the get-go, April establishes itself as a different entity than the eclectic Ghosts: at nearly ten minutes, "Lost Verses" makes for somewhat challenging opening, but Kozelek gets into his low-tempo acoustic groove, mixing it up around the eight-minute mark with some edgier rock guitar. As April winds on (and with three 10-minute epics, it certainly does wind), it soon becomes apparent that Kozelek is focusing on himself all over again, forgoing the intriguing character studies that so peppered Ghosts' best moments. On the closing song "Blue Orchids", Kozelek even mentions the prickly topic of the death of his sister, a tragic fact that is rendered all the more potent by the Gustavo Santaolalla-styled guitar pluckings that surround it. Though death doesn't completely define April, it certainly comes up a lot, particularly on "Unlit Hallway" in which an angel (a female, narrowing the possibilities down to his sister or long-lost lover) follows Kozelek around and "sings words so clear they bring comfort to my ear". We don’t get much explanation beyond this, but additional exposition isn’t really what’s needed: his portraits wind up being as evocative as they are cryptic.
Yet nothing could have prepared anyone for "Huron Blue", one of the darkest songs that Kozelek has ever penned. Over determined, minor-key key plucking (a close cousin to his arrangement for "Convenient Parking" off of Tiny Cities), Kozelek crafts a devastating epic that inadvertently works as the aural accompaniment to Millais' Ophelia:
She lay under the midnight moon
Her restless body stirring
Until the magic morning comes
Like poison, it succumbs her
Her bathing skin, her old back dress
Her hair, it twists 'round her neck
Constricts and chokes like ruthless vines
So sleep: it overtakes her
Before long, we learn that the speaker cannot stand the "melancholic overtones" of the girls' violin, but no resolution emerges from his pain. In short, the playfulness that occasionally peppered Kozelek's previous band is nowhere to be found on April.
Though its scope and scale are nothing short of admirable, April is far from perfect: Kozelek largely places it safe with his arrangements this time out, shying away form the loud rock guitars and pop songs that marked the final days of the Painters (see: no "Byrd Joel" to be found in these parts). "Moorestown" is a fine, standard-issue Sun Kil Moon song, but it largely stays in Kozelek's safe zone, as does the sole "rock" number (the twisty, drawn-out "Tonight the Sky"). A conservative Kozelek tune, however, is nothing to complain about: the man's good at pulling on the heartstrings, and by the time he gets to the faintly-optimistic "Tonight in Bilbao", its hard not to share in the man's catharsis. For a first time listener, April will invoke moods and feelings that come out only on rare, poignant occasions. Long time fans, however, are to be greeted with more of the same, free of any true innovation.
"Sorrow came in floods this April," he sings on "Harper Road". Kozelek may never fully explain what that sorrow is or even who it is that is threatening to leave his side, but perhaps it’s for the best: his mysterious muses have given us seven complete albums filled with beautiful, heartbreaking songs that stretch over the course of 16 storied years. Even with its flaws, it's still time for us to raise our glasses and welcome number eight into that same family.