Album Review: Sun Kil Moon - Ghosts of The Great Highway (15th anniversary vinyl reissue)

The other day, as a joke, after my vinyl reissue of Ghosts of The Great Highway arrived in the mail, I was trying to illicit excitement about it out of my wife, who, for a number of years, has let it be known how much she hates all things Mark Kozelek.

“But isn’t Mark Kozelek a garbage person?” she asked me, wondering why I’d ponied up the money for something he’s attached to.

Well yes. Yes of course Mark Kozelek is a garbage person. He’s probably always been a garbage person, dating all the way back to his days fronting the Red House Painters. And for around the last five or six years, he has become a sad caricature of himself—a notoriously cantankerous personality, both on record and on stage, shitting out terribly self-indulgent and unlistenable music at an alarmingly prolific rate, giving few, if any, fucks what people thing of his current output.

But in 2003, two years after the official demise of the Red House Painters, following two acoustic efforts released under his own name—one of which was comprised of AC/DC covers—there was still an air of mystique and admiration surrounding him as a songwriter and performer.

You see, fifteen years ago, Kozelek was still a songwriter. That is never a term I would use to describe him now, because what he concocts now are not really songs at all. However, fifteen years ago, he used fragile, evocative, ambiguous, and even poetic imagery in his lyrics so that they were actually captivating.

Ghosts of The Great Highway is the first album Kozelek released under his newly minted Sun Kil Moon moniker (more on the name later); originally issued on CD by Jetset and on LP by Cameron Crowe’s Vinyl Films, both of those editions are long out of print, as is the deluxe CD reissue via Kozelek’s Caldo Verde label from 2007. And in a celebration, of sorts, of the album’s 15th anniversary, Ghosts has been reissued on vinyl via Rough Trade.

Sonically speaking, there is a night and day difference between what the man is doing now, in comparison to what he was doing during George W. Bush’s first term in office. Ghosts arrived as the result of what Kozelek had been building up to at that point in his career—finding the common ground, or at least, points of connection between acoustic Americana, Crazy Horse-esque distortion, and the cavernous 4AD gloom of his former band’s very early days.

Even when Ghosts begins to falter slightly in its fourth side, it is still a startling, somber, gorgeous portrait of an artist, already well established with a cult following, attempting to rebrand himself while still being very aware of his past.

The name of the band is, by all accounts, a variant on the South Korean boxer Moon Sung-kil, or Sung Kil Moon; Kozelek, surprisingly enough, is a huge boxing fan—Salvador Sanchez, Pancho Villa, and Duk Koo Kim are all the names of boxers, as well as song titles from Ghosts of The Great Highway.

The first lyric on the album is the name Cassius Clay.

Before Sun Kil Moon, more or less, became Kozelek’s masturbatory solo project in 2010, it was an actual band, and could be seen as a continuation of the Red House Painters; for the first three Sun Kil Moon albums, Kozelek was joined by a number of former Red House Painters collaborators. In an interview from 2005, he confessed to creating a new band name in an effort to reignite the interest from music critics who had either stopped listening, or forgotten about him completely.

* * *

I still have my Jetset Records copy of Ghost of The Great Highway on CD—the disc itself an ugly brown, the edges of the cardboard digipak worn from time. I bought it in the early spring of 2004; I was 20 years old, a junior in college, and despite having been aware of the Red House Painters for a number of years at this point, I was choosing now to ‘get into them’—purchasing their Retrospective collection and Ghosts at Moondog Music in Dubuque, Iowa.

The girl I was involved with at the time referred to Kozelek, as well as many other artists that I listened to heavily during this point in my life, as ‘sad bastard music.’

And sure, yes, a bulk of the Red House Painters’ material is, in fact, sad—maybe it’s the lyrics (though in retrospect, some of them are just kind of mean spirited), or maybe it’s the way, during the first phase of his career, Kozelek carried his voice. I mean, he no longer actually sings—but there was this extremely fragile, somber quality to his voice that made the songs heartbreaking.

Despite that quality in his voice, and even with some of the more stunning arrangements on Ghosts (e.g. “Gentle Moon” and “Last Tide”), it’s not really a sad album. It’s not a happy album either; it’s not triumphant or even hopeful. It’s an album full of stories, sketches of people, rich imagery, and in places, a very surprising darkness.

* * *

Ghosts begins with the rollicking, shuffling, moderately freewheeling “Glenn Tipton,” named after the guitarist from Judas Priest, as Kozelek, over a rhythmic acoustic strum, paints a vivid and melancholic portrait of himself, his father, boxers, guitar players, old movies, and a donut shop. It’s in the third verse that he slides into his typical broken hearted territory, though here, there’s a surprising starkness and misogyny to it—“I buried my first victim when I was 19,” he sings. “I went through her bedroom and the pockets of her jeans. I found her letters that said so many things that really hurt me bad”; then, on “Carry Me Ohio,” he opens with the line, “Sorry I could never love you back.”

The interesting thing about Ghosts, from a lyrical standpoint, once you start to analyze them somewhat critically, is that this album is very dark in a lot of places—and if not dark, at least, Kozelek is writing from a place where he is aware that nothing really lasts.

He’s been writing about his own fleeting mortality quite a bit on his latter day material—mostly just griping about his back hurting. That idea of mortality is present in a few relatively honest statements on Ghosts—“I feel old,” he states at the end of the noisy “Lily and Parrots.”

Overall, there is a real starkness that has just resonated this time around, listening to this reissue. Yes, “Last Tide,” is sure lovely—one of the more gorgeous pieces on the record, but damn, this is heavy duty—“Will you be here with me my love, when the warm sun turns to ash,” he asks. “And the last time disappears; all darkness near.” Then later, as the song prepares to segue into “Floating,” “Will you be next to me my love, when the cold moon vanishes? And the last cries no yells for it to here.”

There’s other catastrophic and apocalyptic imagery later on in the album’s centerpiece, “Duk Koo Kim,” as well as in the album’s most sweeping and grand moment, “Gentle Moon,” which according to the forward of Nights of Passed Over, a book that collects Kozelek’s lyrics, is about September 11th, 2001.

Structurally speaking, Ghosts of The Great Highway finds its pacing within the second side—beginning with the one-two punch of the connected “Last Tide,” and “Floating.” “Last Tide” is obviously the stronger of the two, with “Floating” coming in as more of an epilogue or afterward, though you can’t have one without the other. Once, many years ago, I caught “Last Tide” being played very late at night on 89.3 The Current, and I get that all their music is set up in a computer or whatever, but the song awkwardly came to its end and jumped right into another, unrelated song. You really do want to hear one coast right into the other, making an impressive and seamless transition.

Even with the revelation that “Gentle Moon” is about September 11th, 2001, and that Kozelek, as a songwriter, was slightly embarrassed about writing a song regarding the feeling of unease and fear at the time, it’s still one of the album’s high points, and probably one of the best songs of Kozelek’s career. The inclusion of strings obviously makes it exponentially more dramatic, and there is something incredibly bittersweet about the arrangement itself—it evokes a sensation unlike anything else on the record.

Included in this reissue, as it was on the original 2003 pressing, is an ‘acoustic version’ of “Gentle Moon.” It’s different than the radio session recording of the song that appears on the 2007 CD reissue as bonus track, though it does have a very loose, underdeveloped quality to it that makes it pale in comparison—in some places, Kozelek can’t quite hit the notes he needs to (his voice is also effected by some reverb, a technique he overuses in live performances) and there are a few string plucks that don’t quite resonate the way they should.

The other high point on Ghost is the sprawling, claustrophobic “Duk Koo Kim”—clocking in at nearly 15 minutes in lengthy, here, it’s smartly pressed onto one entire side of the second LP, giving the song as much breathing room as it needs.

Following the Red House Painters’ two self-titled efforts, the band started to move away from that heavy post-shoegaze downcast sound; you hear very little of it on Ocean Beach, and you hear none of it at all on Songs for A Blue Guitar. “Duk Koo Kim” is the kind of song for those who miss the sound of Kozelek backed by detuned, dissonant electric guitar, drowning in its own delay and echo. There’s nothing else this ominous on the album, and he hasn’t made anything that sounds like this since.

Named after a boxer that died in 1982 immediately after a fight against Ray Mancini, Kozelek revisits that stark imagery from “Last Tide,”—“Lookin’ out on my roof last night, woken up from a dream. I saw a typhoon comin’ in close, bringin’ the clouds down to the sea.” Later, as the song continues to trudge and snarl forward, he delves into fears over death and mortality—his own, and possibly of ‘Katy,’ of “Katy Song” fame, his former girlfriend with whom he split up with in the late 1990s. The Genius annotation on this song claims that she passed away from cancer during the time Kozelek was writing and recording Ghosts and that her death resonates in the lyrics of this song.

However, “Duk Koo Kim” is a song that is about more than the lyrics—it’s about creating an atmosphere. Kozelek’s vocals are delivered and mixed in a way so that they aren’t buried, but they also aren’t front and center as they are in other songs on the record. They fight to stay afloat in the tumultuous ocean of crisp snare hits and distortion.

Ghosts of The Great Highway heads into its conclusion with a jaunty, rollicking instrumental—“Si Paloma,” which is quite a contrast when compared to the 15 minutes that arrive immediately before it. It’s a fine song, but it’s steeped in a sense of uncharacteristic whimsy, so it winds up sounding like something that would play at the end of an indie dramatic comedy. “Pancho Villa” is the album’s final track, and it’s an acoustic mirror image of the third song, the noisy, crunchy “Salvador Sanchez.”

Neither of these are bad songs, but “Duk Koo Kim” is a tough act to follow.

* * *

In the fifteen years that have passed since Ghosts was originally released, Mark Kozelek, in my opinion, has done detrimental damage to his career and legacy. I bought a Sun Kil Moon shirt in 2008 and eventually became too embarrassed by both his musical output as well as his toxic persona that I could no longer bring myself to wear it, and donated it to charity. I stopped being a Kozelek apologist a number of years ago, and I hesitated buying this reissue—as I did when I bought two of the Red House Painters vinyl reissues in 2016.

Trying to separate the artist from the art has been a popular topic of discussion; just how far are you willing to bend in order to defend the art from the artist?

Ghosts of The Great Highway is the kind of album that could never be made now—it’s a true product of its time and environment, and thankfully, it’s aged incredibly well, though I will say the cover art has always, always been horrible. But whatever. Written and recorded during a tumultuous time for both Kozelek as well as our culture, the light, acoustic nature that runs throughout a majority of the album captures a kind of innocence that had just been lost but there were still slight glimmers of hope.

It captures a new chapter in Kozelek’s career, one that would peak in 2008 with April, and then plummet in the decade that followed.

This album means a lot to me, for some reason. The songs don’t break my heart, but I do hold this record in a special place. It’s representative of this time in my life—a time of growth and change. And unlike some things that I listened to heavily during this span of time, Ghosts of The Great Highway, despite Kozelek’s best efforts, is something I’ve managed to take with me over the last 15 years.

The blurb that accompanies this record on the Rough Trade website states that an album as good as this one should never go out of print. I suppose their right. Revisiting it now is a chance to try to separate the artist from the art, to look into your past, and to hear the songs that you more than likely know very well, now freshly pressed into the grooves of vinyl (the quality of this thing is great, by the way) resonating with a rich warmth as they play.

Ghosts of The Great Highway is out now via Rough Trade.