on 23 May 2013
Ghosts Of The Great Highway is a wondrous creation. A work of great depth, texture and perception, it is, without doubt, a masterpiece. I've been listening to it regularly for years now and not only do I never tire of hearing it, I simply cannot find a thing about it that I don't like. From the cover art to the singers voice to the songs (10 of them, some long, some short, mostly acoustic, sometimes electric, engaging, compelling and enthralling), it's all good.
Great album's come about in all sorts of different ways of course and one type of which I'm particularly fond is when it's one person's vision, they allow us to visit with them for the duration of the album, get inside their mind for a while if you like. We've had two great examples of that type in 2013 already, from Jim James and Nick Cave. This one, from 2003, was the brainchild of Mark Kozelek who is, for all intents and purposes, Sun Kil Moon.
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Born in Ohio in 1967, Mark Kozelek had moved to San Francisco by the late 80s where he formed the band Red House Painters. A demo tape found its way to England's 4AD Records and in 1992 they released the band's debut album Down Colorful Hill, it was an instant classic which received great acclaim and has become a very influential release. Some fantastic work followed another four albums in fact, before record company problems forced a delay in the release of their final album Old Ramon. There was a five year gap between albums and it didn't emerge until 2001 by which time the band had split and Kozelek had embarked on a solo career with first an EP then the album What's Next To The Moon, a release composed entirely of AC/DC cover versions done acoustically and like you've never heard them before, quite wonderful. After this he decided to get another band together and thus was born Sun Kil Moon, named after a Korean boxer, a sport which Kozelek loves and which has influenced many of his songs over the years. Their debut album, in November 2003, was Ghosts Of The Great Highway.
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Overall, it's poignant, heartfelt and laced all the way through with bittersweet sadness and regret, it has that kind feel to it. The first track embodies all this and more and begins with Kozelek telling us about a few people that he likes, among them Glenn Tipton (after whom the track is named) and K.K. Downing who were both guitarists with the rock band Judas Priest. It then slides into reminiscing about sitting up late at night with his father, watching old movies on TV, and a friend that he misses:
"I knew an old woman who ran a donut shop / she worked late serving cops / but then one morning baby her heart stopped /place ain't the same no more..............not without my friend "
It's the kind of little thing he can pull from seemingly nowhere and make it seem like these snapshots are momentous moments in life.
Finally we have a verse which appears to be about his first love and how it went wrong due to jealousy, betrayal and lack of trust. Maybe. The line "I buried my first victim when I was 19" can, of course, be taken literally or metaphorically, the choice is ours.
It ends abruptly and after a brief drum roll we're off into the majestic "Carry Me, Ohio" possibly the best song, amid some very stiff competition, on the album. It's a complex song but if I had to sum it up in one word it would be: yearning.
The question is though, what exactly is he yearning for? As per usual, Mark leaves things open to interpretation, he never makes things too easy for the listener, a canny trick: it keeps you interested and coming back for more. So, on this one we're never sure if he's pining for that lost love again or his home, the home that could never sustain him and which he had to leave to fulfill his ambitions and destiny. To put it bluntly: Ohio, a girl or the state?
There's more, so much more.
"Salvador Sanchez" sees the first real impact of electric guitar, it kicks in just when it's needed (the full album is sequenced with care, you can tell), a grungy/Crazy Horse lope which grinds and groans to great effect. The song itself is a eulogy for boxing heroes who died before their time, young warriors in the prime of life. Kozelek obviously has great admiration and writes a beautiful tribute here. Ultimately though it's about more, the entire human experience and the trials, triumphs, heartaches etc we all must go through to get where we want to be.
"Last Tide" and "Floating" are two separate tracks but blend seamlessly together. Here we're in Nick Drake territory, back to acoustic guitar and lovelorn strings in the background. They also appear to be linked in subject matter with "Last Tide" lamenting " I never showed you if I loved you enough" and "Floating" continuing on with "Come to me my love, one more night..........cos I just wanna hold you close, again". Two gentle tunes, carrying real emotional power, quietly devastating.
The mood carries on with the light and airy feel which ushers in "Gentle Moon" which appears to be about finding hope and salvation in nature and, well, just the beautiful things all around us including life itself and the fact that we're here to enjoy it. Even if times seem bad, if you hold on things will get better. "Gentle moon......find us soon." Kozelek has stated that he wrote this song in the days following 9/11.
"Lily And Parrots" finds him back in electric mode, it chugs along grittily as he delivers a quite perfect little love song . There's an acoustic version which has been released elsewhere, you'd think it would fit on this album perfectly, but I actually think this take works better in this context, it gives a bit of variety to proceedings. A sweet song in any guise though.
The 14 and a half minute long "Duk Koo Kim" can seem a little daunting at first, even I admit, but there's a real pay-off at the end as the songs final section evolves it a wondrous, psychedelic/acoustic reverie, a delightful surprise and some of the most beautiful music on the album.
Near the end now, "Si Paloma" a soothing instrumental with flamenco overtones followed by "Pancho Villa" , a final acoustic gem which seemed very familiar to me for a while , until eventually I realized that it's actually a different version of the earlier "Salvador Sanchez" with the same lyrics but a different title . It's very nice to compare the two, and very hard to say which one I prefer, maybe this one but as noted earlier, the "electric" version kicks in at just the right moment, if you're listening to the full album in sequence, which is obviously the intention.
It makes for a stunning finale though, the section where the strings come sweeping in then give way to Kozelek's emotive guitar playing is just transcendent.
And there we have it, a real peach of an album which has taken me by surprise and held me enthralled for much of the past while.
I'm struggling to come up with words which can accurately describe just how good this album is but here's one for you : sublime. According to my dictionary it means: of such excellence, grandeur or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe.
For me that sums it up perfectly. Mark Kozelek really pulled out all his tricks for this one, an album of infinite charm which will be his greatest achievement , the man simply won't better this.
Very few could.