Entertainment Music

Tuesday 17 July 2018

Moon-struck by the spring in his step

Nick Kelly

Mark Kozelek is a songwriter adored by his fiercely loyal fans, and hugely respected by his fellow travellers on the indie rock circuit in the US. Two such stars, Death Cab For Cutie's Ben Gibbard and Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, guest on Kozelek's new album, April, the third release of his Sun Kil Moon project.

Appearing, appropriately enough, on the first day of April, it's being hailed as the finest and most mature record of the 41-year-old singer's illustrious 16-year career. It seems Kozelek's spring has sprung. A sprawling 76-minute opus centred on recurring themes of love, loss, loneliness ... and death, April glories in shimmering, hazy guitar workouts, with languorous melodies that spiral downwards, drawing you into their hypnotic swells and eddies.

These are not songs that instantly lodge in the memory like a radio jingle; rather you have to meet them more than half-way -- camp out at their front door, even, but when they eventually beckon you in, you will be Moon-struck.

Like Neil Young -- who remains a touchstone for Kozelek -- the music can glide effortlessly from crunching buzzsaw grunge to folky acoustic picking, depending on the mood required.

Here, amped-up one-note guitar solos, both antsy and angsty, convey the sense of frustration at a doomed relationship; there, a banjo gently enters the mix to complement the rapture of reverie.

If there's one dominant mood, though, it's that of an aching melancholia, brought on by vivid memories of long-gone lovers and dear friends and family who have passed on. This inheritance of loss is his burden -- as well as his muse.

One of the things that makes Kozelek such a singular figure is also what holds him back from gaining more widespread success: his total refusal to compromise.

Where most artists lead off an album with their catchiest tune, Kozelek opens April with a 10-minute meditation on mortality -- in 'Lost Verses' his ghost haunts the streets of San Francisco, peering in through the windows at his friends as they go about their business: "I want them to know how I love them so," he sings ever so softy. Music doesn't get more bittersweet than this. Whaddya mean you

penned and therefore feel more intimate and personal than 2005's album of Modest Mouse cover versions, Tiny Cities; secondly, because it offers a return to the expansive string-swept epics of Highway over the latter's short acoustic chamber pieces.

Not that Tiny Cities didn't have its own charms -- for once, it showcased Kozelek's canny interpretive powers brilliantly. His version of Trucker's Atlas, recounting the heady days of a wild road trip across America, is unforgettable -- it sent me scurrying to check out Modest Mouse's original, which to my disappointment was a formless mess; a mere slab of Carrera marble, from which Kozelek sculpted a masterpiece.

Some of the songs on April will be familiar to those of you who caught Kozelek on his Irish tour last November. Moorestown', about the well-remembered days of a budding romance, is one song that he included on his set list, and it sounds better for having a full band flesh it out.

But he can be hit-and-miss on stage: one of my top three greatest live shows I ever saw was by the original line-up of his first band, Red House Painters, in London's Camden Underworld in 1993, just after the release of their self-titled Bridge album.

But at last year's show in Whelan's, Kozelek was battling a bad cold and was in no mood to suffer gladly the fools endlessly texting and taking pictures with their mobile phones.

In tandem with this remarkable record, Kozelek has also published a limited edition hardback book, Nights of Passed Over, containing the lyrics of all his songs -- from his days in Red House Painters through his solo work to his current incarnation as Sun Kil Moon. It's a body of work to rival any of his peers.

Yet in some ways it feels like Kozelek is only just getting started. As the former Rolling Stone journalist Rob O'Connor wrote: "He is forever doomed to seek a closure that will remain one song away from realisation and forever out of reach."

There's the paradox: his loss is our gain.

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