No longer worried about What's Next to the Moon?, ex-Red House Painters troubadour Mark Kozelek returns to the dusty earth with an album of exquisite plainsongs for the debut under his new moniker, Sun Kil Moon. A thinly disguised solo set, Ghosts of the Great Highway finds Kozelek settling into a porch rocking chair and delivering ten songs that provide slight updates to his tried and true style.
On this release Kozelek has delved further back into the rich musical history of America to craft compositions that rely heavily on early guitar and vocal narrative music, like that found on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. In styling more organic song arrangements, Sun Kil Moon's Ghost of the Great Highway drifts away from the tedious slow-core classification that hung like a yoke around the neck of so many Red House Painters releases and aligns itself with a more languid form of timeless storytelling. Within the scope of Mark Kozelek's library of songs this transition is subtle but nonetheless significant. Whereas many of the Red House Painters albums seemed to be yearning for a loftier goal than the one achieved on a specific recording, Ghosts of the Great Highway maintains a certain comfort, as if the songs have finally realized themselves and have reached their natural end within themselves, as well as within this album as a whole.
The tone is set on the opener, "Glen Tipton", as chiming acoustic guitars gently dress the laconic vocal that addresses the concepts of remembrance, fatherly devotion, and, of course, paints Judas Priest guitarist Glen Tipton as a modern musical outlaw. The lyrical content of this track should come as no surprise given Kozelek's affection for early metal as represented on his recent acoustic cover collection of AC/DC songs, What's Next to the Moon. "Glen Tipton" begins a consistent theme that is threaded across Ghosts of the Great Highway in which a symbiotic relationship between old and new is crafted, drawn, broken, and rebuilt.
As he did in Red House Painters, Kozelek channels master balladeer Neil Young on tracks like "Carry Me Ohio" and "Gentle Moon". Both tracks utilize a full band to drive the musical arrangements, with understated and sometimes slurred vocals being an afterthought rather than the focus of these songs. "Gentle Moon" is clearly the finer of the two compositions, featuring brushed percussion and acoustic guitar as a frame for the melody. While "Carry Me Ohio" can feel as if the band is working too hard to make the song develop, "Gentle Moon" is effortless, using a subtle but essential string section in addition to the traditional four-piece band. The performances by all the musicians working in concert on "Gentle Moon" sustains the undisputed pleasure of the track and places it slightly ahead of "Carry Me Ohio".
The soul of the album is the 14-minute opus "Duk Koo Kim", which previously appeared in two distinct versions on a 10" single issued by Cameron Crowe's Vinyl Records. This version realizes the finer points of the two previous recordings to create a delicate balance between Kozelek's long drawl and the toned-down, dirty, distorted guitar lines that float from our speakers. The insertion of a finger picked mandolin at the halfway point begins the long road of building "Duk Koo Kim" to its inevitable and necessary crescendo. The band fades out, acoustic guitars replace the distorted, and Kozelek explores a lengthy, stirring vocal and guitar solo, reaching into the upper registers of both instruments as the song comes to a close.
Following a song of such sustained emotional depth is near impossible within the pop framework. Typically the listener is let down as the next song usually pales in comparison. To avoid this sort of denouement Kozelek inserts "Si Paloma", which is a fiesta of the spirit. Using shakers and juxtaposing acoustic guitar lines, the instrumental track "Si Paloma" sounds like a long lost experimental mariachi recording from the Cocteau Twins. By the time things have wound down, the listener has cracked open the piñata and discovered the final treasure, "Pancho Villa".
Bearing two different names and arrangements, "Pancho Villa" and third track "Salvador Sanchez" are derivative versions of the same song. Where "Salvador Sanchez" sounds like British shoe-gazers Ride interpreting the Carter Family, "Pancho Villa" furthers the harmonious nature of previous tracks like "Si Paloma" and "Duk Koo Kim" by utilizing mandolin, multiple acoustic guitars, and a string section to create a breathtaking wall of music. The presentation of these two tracks in their varying states recalls the work of great painters like Picasso, who in the prelude to Cubism offered many versions of the same work, including his beautiful tribute to music, the "Old Guitarist" in his "Blue Period".
In both visual art and here on this album we are offered insight into the creative process and we see that art is not absolute. It is apparent that Kozelek does not see these recordings as the definitive versions of these songs. Tracks like "Duk Koo Kim" and "Gentle Moon" have appeared in a variety of recorded formats over the years, and "Pancho Villa" and "Salvador Sanchez" offer variations of the same song within this album. What we do know is that these specific arrangements and recordings represent a rarefied and cohesive body of work on the novel album Ghosts of the Great Highway. Like all finer works by significant American artists, Ghosts of the Great Highway represents an expansive, continent-traversing narrative that evokes the literary style of John Steinbeck and the vivid imagery of everyday American life captured in the watercolors of Edward Hopper. Sun Kil Moon's debut is one of the finest recordings of the year, and perhaps one of the year's more impressive total artistic achievements as well.