Sun Kil Moon
Ghosts of the Great Highway
2003
F



why does Mark Kozelek work so hard at turning innocent words into babble? What did the English language ever do to him? I’m a Kozelek fan from way back, and have always enjoyed his Snuffleupagus mope of a voice; yet there was always the fear he might some day try to really sing. Now that day has come, and it’s as bad as anticipated. Ghosts of the Great Highway is a dull, annoying drone of a disc. Kozelek is a brilliant Johnny-one-note, but here he is playing wildly out of key.

In his best moments with Red House Painters, Kozelek was like a small boy having a tantrum, bawling out whatever was too scary or complex to say in words. The results were often hypnotic: the pairing of his mealy-mouth vocals with a heavy chord progression (as on Ramon’s “Between Days” or Songs for a Blue Guitar’s Cars cover “All Mixed Up”) gave a soulful, dirge-y voice to the voiceless, and reaffirmed the rapturous joys of loud, willfully dumb rawk. We’ve kept faith with Kozelek through his record label disputes and the epochs that separate one release from the next, patiently awaiting the day his 70s-rock worship would coalesce into something with a punch and identity all its own. But Ghosts is not that statement, nor is it worth the wait. All the clever name-dropping—Sonny Liston, Glenn Tipton, Clark Gable, et al.—just proves that Kozelek paid attention in high school. Tepid songs like “Last Tide”, “Gentle Moon” and “Floating” sound like boozed-up, depressed James Taylor, or even James Iha. Likewise the rest of the disc, which is so strikingly bland it took this reviewer three months to work up the fortitude to hear it again.

When Kozelek strays too far from the brooding, bombastic sound at which he excels, the sullen voice that puts the despondency and hurt on top of sprawling gems such as “Make Like Paper” falls embarrassingly flat. His bad-teen-poet persona, when accompanied by lame acoustic guitar and uninspired string arrangements, sounds like the noodlings of just another sad sack with a microphone.

With a snoozilicious country-rock sound that makes even the Eagles seem crisp by comparison, Kozelek appears to have temporarily mothballed his greater sonic ambitions and opted instead for a niche as a latter-day Mazzy Star for boys. But if Ghosts is Kozelek’s first foray into, say, dad-rock, then he’s done a great job. New dads will love it; vague, untroubling goop like this will lull their babies right to sleep.
Reviewed by: Chris deMaagd
Reviewed on: 2004-02-12
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