It may seem strange to characterize any album involving Mark Kozelek as "revealing", but Ghosts of the Great Highway
is precisely that. Kozelek, not for the first time in his career, shares a side of himself that is both absorbing and affecting. While it bears an obvious and unwavering resemblance to the rest of his work, Ghosts of the Great Highway
easily ranks among the very best of Kozelek's dense discography, and it seems fair to suggest that it will become the measuring stick against which any future non-Red House Painters material is compared.
A series of solo releases, varying in form from vinyl-only EPs to AC/DC cover albums, have satisfied Kozelek's growing number of diehard (if not bookish) followers, but Ghosts of the Great Highway is the first full-length, full-band recording from the songwriter since 2000's Old Ramon. Thankfully, the group standing behind the moniker Sun Kil Moon (which includes Red House Painters mainstay, drummer Anthony Koutsos) succeeds in giving long-time fans more of exactly what they've come to expect, while also developing the sound in a direction that should open this brand of blackened balladry to a wider audience.
Red House Painters songs have always been emotional affairs, but there is a nakedness to Sun Kil Moon that suggests that Kozelek is more comfortable in this skin. His remarkable and instantly recognizable voice has been given less of a leading role in the mix, which has the immediate effect of making the disc sound like a working band rather than a glorified solo project. Through references to family and friends in both his native Ohio and his adopted hometown of San Francisco -- which humanizes the often intimidating figure Kozelek cuts in person and on stage -- there is a noble humility at work here that is very endearing. Numerous textural elements take a place front and center in the arrangements, as sweeping strings and chiming glockenspiel appear on several tracks and fully flesh out the romanticism of the compositions.
"Gentle Moon" benefits most from this widescreen vision and stands as one of the finest songs Kozelek has penned in his nearly bulletproof career. It is once again intensity that reveals the complexity of each track (albeit gradually), while a toe-tapping sing-along chorus offers us an easy point of entry into the song's world. (Coincidentally, if ever there was a Kozelek tune that seemed destined for some sort of radio recognition and widespread soundtrack circulation, this is it.) The rocker "Salvador Sanchez" is the nearest any Kozelek studio recording has ever come to the riveting intensity of live Red House Painters performances, which seems to say something about the comfort that this new moniker and its membership affords the songwriter. Its partner, the downtempo "Pancho Villa", is the same tune, stripped of the full-band treatment and accenting an altogether different emotional edge -- further testament to Kozelek's ability to recognize the numerous stylistic permutations available at the core of a single tune. An instrumental piece, "Si, Paloma", is a fascinating hybrid of The Tijuana Brass and the most celebratory moments of The Wild Bunch, with crystalline flashes of past Red House Painters melodies. If you listen closely, you'll detect remnants of a classic track from the RHP canon adrift in the sea of Portuguese guitar stylings and kinetic percussion (I just haven't been able to put my figure on which one).
Last, but certainly not least, is a yet another interpretation of "Duk Koo Kim", Kozelek's epic homage to the spirit of a fallen athlete and the impact it had upon his own personal perspective. It remains one of the most finely executed and stirring compositions Kozelek has written, and its inclusion on Ghosts of the Great Highway suggests that Sun Kil Moon is just the beginning of the road back to a place where the songwriter's unique voice and vision are regularly on display.