Someone from a site called Splicetoday spammed one of my old REM blogs last week, posting a link to an interesting compare-and-contrast piece on both “Accelerate” and Mark Kozelek’s new Sun Kil Moon album, “April”. It reminded me, amongst other things, that I’d been sleeping on the Sun Kil Moon record; that maybe the embracing familiarity of Kozelek’s latest doleful epic had made me take it for granted. Or maybe it was just that I’d been listening to it on one of those moody secure streams, and today a CD arrived.
An obsession with Kozelek and his first band, Red House Painters, frequently got me into trouble at NME in the early ‘90s, when it was perceived (probably accurately) that I’d much rather be filling the mag with whingeing sadcore Americans rather than the bright and ambitious young tyros of Britpop. I remember spending an entire flight back from San Francisco listening to early mixes of songs that ended up on the two self-titled albums from 1993, after visiting Kozelek in the studio at the end of my first visit to the States.
He’s always had a difficult reputation, but I always seemed to get on OK with him; apart, maybe, from the interview when I asked him too many tricky questions about the ex-girlfriends who filled his songs (chiefly Katy) and he slowly retreated until he was almost entirely under the duvet and I was hovering at the end of the bed with a microphone.
But I digress, possibly because much of “April” is so preciously similar to that early phase of Kozelek’s work. “April” is ostensibly the follow-up to 2005’s “Tiny Cities”, an album of Modest Mouse songs which proved, yet again, that Kozelek could take any song and make it sound like one of his own; morose, unravelling, slow beyond the endurance of most listeners. With “Tiny Cities”, mind, unlike his past adventures with the AC/DC catalogue, for instance, it was hard to see the point.
“April” proves that Kozelek’s own songs are much better – though, in truth, it’s hard to remember individual songs here. More than ever, the whole album rolls on with that inexorable, weary, stubborn momentum which Kozelek minted right at the start of his career. I used the word “unravelling” in the last para, but it strikes me as inaccurate, actually. Kozelek’s songs often go on for a long time, but there isn’t often any great dynamic shifts or epiphanies. Sun Kil Moon songs demand immersion, the better to detect tiny shifts of gear, to become hypnotised by Kozelek’s melancholy incantations.
That said, the opening “Lost Verses” works through maybe ten minutes of delicate acoustic scene-setting, before a brief rock coda, the closest here to a dramatic event. It’s a neat opener, showcasing both the febrile prettiness of Kozelek’s balladry (“Lucky Man” is especially gorgeous here, with a touch of Nick Drake and maybe some of Red House Painters circa “Ocean Beach”) and that chundering Crazy Horse plod which came to the fore on the brilliant first Sun Kil Moon album, “Ghosts Of The Great Highway”.
“April” isn’t quite as good as that record, and I could’ve done with a bit more of the Neil-ish jams that makes the likes of “Tonight The Sky” (home to an extraordinarily staticky solo that sounds like a serene hailstorm) so compelling. There’s a sense on this album, though, that Kozelek, if not exactly becoming a scenester, is finally making some judicious connections.
Will Oldham is a ghostly presence on backing vocals here, coming into focus on the lovely “Like The River”. Oldham’s perpetual quest for reinvention, for new collaborators and challenges, is a striking contrast to Kozelek’s meticulous ploughing of the one unending furrow. Part of me wishes that the latter would be a little more adventurous, inch tentatively out of his comfort zone. But as I type, “Tonight In Bibao” is playing, and Kozelek’s resolution, his constancy, that almost sepulchral stillness, seems oddly noble.