It didn’t take long, once the first Red House Painters album was released in 1992, for Mark Kozelek to be stereotyped as morose, even in the black-edged company of singer-songwriters. Most Kozelek songs followed a predictable pattern where he would lament the loss of another girlfriend, or plead for a return to the womb’s security, over music that rarely moved faster than a dirge. The first few Painters LPs, on 4AD, were exquisite, compelling and slightly unnerving to listen to, complicated further by the suspicion that Kozelek exploited his apparent vulnerability as a way of getting the girls.
In recent years, however, Kozelek has strived to escape his own stereotype, whether writing more ambivalently, upping his band’s pace, or releasing a lovely solo album of deconstructed AC/DC covers. Sun Kil Moon is his latest attempt to, as he puts it, “open things up”, even though RHPs’ Anthony Koutsos figures alongside fellow San Franciscan drummer Tim Mooney, from American Music Club, in the pool of players. The band’s name is borrowed from a Korean boxer, and three song titles also reference dead pugilists, which initially seems to be an extension of Kozelek’s trademark morbidity. But the rationale is more oblique. Rather than obsessing over recent tragedies, he now uses randomly-accessed images?of boxers, acquaintances, even Judas Priest guitarists (on “Glenn Tipton”)?as emotional prompts to help him organise vaguer, more personal memories. Fittingly for an album that perceives nostalgia as a hazy zone of indistinct dimensions, Sun Kil Moon’s songs tend to be lengthy, ebbing spiels rather than compacted nuggets. It’s something they share, happily, with the best Red House Painters songs: the superbly doleful “Duk Koo Kim” takes nearly 15 minutes to unravel?a match for early Kozelek epics like “Evil” and “Katy Song”.
This is, though, a record where mature contemplation and a relative flexibility triumph over despondency and formula. The first three RHP LPs remain masterpieces of post-adolescent solipsism. But on Ghosts…, Kozelek has found a way of keeping the engulfing intensity of that early work while expanding his range and, perhaps, even growing up.