Hello friends! I’m just stopping by to give you my 2014 wrap-up playlist. I’ve been working on this very hard, and I feel it’s finally acquired a certain elusive architecture, so here it is. There’s a lot of oddity on this one, as my life was filled with unusual and overwhelming events, so I feel that a jagged quality is in order for a yearly bottom line such as this. Please feel free to ask about the less common names on the playlist, I’d be happy to elucidate and impart some trivia, if I can. Cheers!
I’ve written about Mark Kozelek before, in my post about Sun Kil Moon‘s “Admiral Fell Promises” album, one of my favorite records of 2010. Red House Painters are his first band, formed in 1989 in San Francisco and arguably one of the most personal, intimate and warm musical instances of the nineties. The sad, yearning songs which make up Old Ramon, the last album Mark Kozelek released with Red House Painters, are some of the best and most memorable in his career and this record has been in my personal top for about six years now.
Kozelek is a remarkably constant songwriter, possessing an instantly recognizable style, marked by a feeling of patience and attention to detail, both in matters of music and lyrics, able to zoom in on a tiny detail and paint it with stunning accuracy and universal appeal. His songs are usually slow, simple yet intricate, each one vibrating with a delicate, vintage vibe, like a painstakingly sculpted objet d’art. In all honesty, this album reminds me successively of many little meaningful gifts I gave to people I care about throughout the years – the music itself opens up these doors to memory, sweet and quaint as they may be, populating the room I’m in with the presence of so many faded romances and estranged friends it’s sometimes hard not to feel overwhelmed by regret and nostalgia while listening to Old Ramon. I don’t mean this music turns me into an old man; instead, it creates a field in which time seems somehow more dense, in which the myriad slices of yourself which have brought you to this very present suddenly begin to speak again, to assert themselves and lure you into an often-times much-needed conference with the past.
This type of enhanced perception of detail flows forward seamlessly from the hypnotic, sweetly repetitive patterns of this music and suddenly objects around you jingle the strands connecting them to your own biography, capture you in this soft web of memory and every image becomes palpable and immediate. The vintage cigarette holder I found for a dear friend in another city, the cheesy stack of moon photographs with the names of the craters and mountains printed on them in bright yellow, on the backs of which I shamelessly wrote fake memories of romantic strolls an ex girlfriend and I had supposedly taken in the weightless, breathless landscape, the image of my first guitar, black and bulky, leaning tiredly against a wooden wall in the garret of my home, these are things which come flooding in so vividly and candidly it’s simply amazing to think about the way such things can stay hidden in your mind for so long and so quietly, and how they shake off the dust and appear so resplendently once awakened by these soulful melodies. This is private, sensuous music, sincerely romantic, albeit a bit cheesy. But this pang of guilt at the enjoyment of such emotional music is merely an afterthought, an unfair reflex already far away by the time you get into the groove and let the stream of sound float you away.
Old Ramon, as all of Mark Kozelek’s music, is autobiographical, honest and direct, drawing in turn from the deep well of his personal experience and memory. The fact that the music manages to incite the same type of communication with the self is by no means a small feat. Many times songwriters exercise a way of saying without saying, of simultaneous confession and concealment, and while I’m sure Mark Kozelek isn’t immune to this very human reflex, this album, at least, feels to me like one of those rare and precious moments of understanding, of unmediated connection people can establish, sometimes by accident, other times by sheer patience and as a culmination of gathered experience and trust. “River”, for example, is in my opinion an unequaled display of beauty and an acutely sensitive musical iteration of the tension and expectation which I connect to flirtation and the instant when one falls in love. Dizzying, deceptively soft and surprisingly unrelenting, the song perfectly recalls that biological version of gravitational attraction which sometimes sparks between two people and is, I think, my favorite piece of Mark Kozoelek’s songwriting in all of his career.
I’ve said about as much as I can about this album, which as always tends to overwhelm me and leave my words obsolete. Enjoy, if the mood fits you. And if not, save it for a day in which it does. See you soon!
Although it’s credited to Sun Kil Moon, this album is entirely, quintessentially, purely Mark Kozelek. This guy was the driving creative force behind the Red House Painters, a band which helped define the “indie rock” genre during the nineties. Their sound has also been called “sadcore”, which is just a cringe worthy term in my opinion, but it’s nothing impossible to salvage with some wordplay. Kozelek admitted to writing music mostly when going through bad phases, while sad or distraught, in order to center himself and acquire some inner peace. So, at the very core, this music stems from sadness. But the way it manages to transcend that sadness, to express and gently exorcise it at the same time – that’s the key to enjoying his music as a cathartic experience. Red House Painters’ music had an edge to it, had a bit of bite, albeit not very often. Sun Kil Moon, which is his follow-up project, shows signs of age on his part, as if there’s no more room for angst, merely a touch of nostalgia and an endless, warm, peaceful sea of patience. And given that “Admiral Fell Promises” is basically just Kozelek playing his classical guitar, as if to himself, and crooning his everyday-poetry lyrics in a subdued, mesmerizing tone, I’d say this album is pretty much as close to the essence of his creative vector as we’re ever going to get as listeners.
There was always a strange quality about Kozelek’s voice – I’m never quite sure if it’s recorded just once and it has these rich overtones on its own or if he sings twice or more and superimposes the tracks. Today, for example, I get the impression he sang the vocals once for each audio channel. Tomorrow, this impression might fade again. In either case, he manages one of the most mesmerizing effects I’ve heard anyone do with a beautiful but not spectacular voice. And he’s been doing it since the Red House Painters days! When I say not spectacular, I mean it’s not in the same class as, say, Frank Sinatra. It has a grounded, vulnerable, human quality about it, as if there’s something ephemeral about it, as if it’s just about to dissipate. His voice soars prudently – reminding me of the plastic bag scene in American Beauty – with a sort of sincere pretentiousness, if such a thing is possible.
His voice is perfectly doubled and empowered by his absolutely staggering guitar work on this album. As a guitarist myself I can resonate with what he does here on a very personal level. The amount of control and of precision, the amount of inventiveness and the slow, gentle buildup of not so much sound but pure melody he brings to the table are reminiscent of no pop music influence I can discern. No, his playing here draws a direct line to the classical composers, the likes of Baden Powell and Isaac Albeniz and he plays his instrument with all the grace and tenderness of Segovia. A classically trained guitarist might tell me I can’t tell the difference between a guitar and my ass at this point, but in my mind, this kinship remains poignant – I don’t believe one can ignore it, at least not at an emotional level, even if technically there might be severe counterarguments to my impression.
As for the music itself… well, I can think of no better way to keep warm in November than a cup of tea and “Admiral Fell Promises”. This music is like an object you’ve been treasuring ever since you were a child. It’s like your favorite armchair, the book your grandmother used to read you stories from, the china cup inherited from so long ago you can’t even recall who exactly down your family tree acquired it in the first place… or simply the packaging of your last birthday gift, the one on which all your friends wrote and you’ll never ever throw away. The gentle ebb and flow of the rhythmic patterns mirror the ebb and flow of memory and make the passage of time seem like a friendly, welcome thing. In terms of synesthesia I get the feeling while I’m listening to this album that I’m in fact reading a book. There’s a tactile delight involved, like I’m touching the paper and feeling the weight of it, and there’s a tranquility which overcomes me, a particular brand of quiet which no other activity can give me besides reading. Kozelek has a very sensuous quality to his lyrics as well, which is as always well complemented by his melodies, so the lyrics have a way of projecting images into one’s mind, of dancing with your moods and inducing a deep, muffled stirring in one’s imagination and emotional balance.
I can think of no greater compliment for Mark Kozelek and his melancholy musings than drawing the short line between this album and Nick Drake’s “Pink moon”. I’ll get to that album some time in the future… how could I not? But until then, Admiral Fell Promises will do just fine.