Mark Kozelek's most recent album, Ghosts of the Great Highway, is not his trademark sad-core offering, but soul-core both historical exploration and emotional investigation of the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Armed with virtuosic guitar and a new band, he takes us on a spiritual expedition down a haunted memory lane, not just sightseeing from the safety of a comfortable musical vehicle, but stopping frequently to take on the phantoms of the past, toe to toe.
Like a grainy black-and-white highlight film, the early memories he examines and challenges look familiar, but in the context of the present, the time in which they occurred now appears exotically old-fashioned, and the conclusions drawn immature and premature. With fresh appreciation, brought clearly into focus by time, Kozelek pays artistic tribute to those he misses, those he had failed to fully understand and love the first time around.
Akin to the tragic boxers who fascinate and inspire him (and who are memorialized throughout the album), he bravely enters these reminiscent rings with the heavyweights of emotion loss, frustration, failure, regret, love, tragedy, and death staring down disappointment and challenging heartbreak to a fight for liberation. The result is a one-man unanimous decision to claim victory regardless of the fact that he has been knocked out; an album celebrating the confused joy and sorrow of realizing that one does not see things as they are, but as one is at the time they occur.
Kozelek's song stories are not melodramatic, but mellow-dramatic insights about the challenges of making sense of life's sadness. Everyone has melancholy memories, but Kozelek is the rare person who has the guts to follow those memories back into the darkness in search of hidden beauty and who, without denying previous traumas and defeats, returns from the experience with the will to remember and feel again that which had been deliberately forgotten; to make peace with the past, with the "Ghosts of the Great Highway."
The acoustic opener, "Glenn Tipton," gently introduces us to the prevailing theme of the album: Absence reveals relevance. "I know an old woman who ran a donut shop," he sings. "She worked late, serving cops, but then one morning baby her heart stopped/ Place ain't the same no more...not without my friend." This song is both bummer and bubbly it puts a little spring in your step despite its message that you can't truly understand the significance of life, your own or someone else's, until it's over.
"Carry Me Ohio," which follows, is a gorgeous, sometimes angry apology of a once apathetic lover, feeling remorseful and seeking some forgiveness frustrated that there seems to be no satisfying consolation. "What about the sweetness we had?/ What about what's good, what's true, about those days?" It may be a story eulogizing the demise of a relationship and blessing the dear departed, or it may be about just plain death and all the "should haves" that tend to follow. Whichever, or neither, there is definitely a holy quality about it, and a request for some kind of redemption.
"Salvador Sanchez" is the magnificent story of a dead boxer, told with a passionate electric guitar and appearing again to close the album (with the addition of a small symphony), as a sophisticated acoustic sonata. Each version is a dizzying complex layering of audacious guitar the beautiful madness of a musician's mind that can't stop playing with the instrument he loves. Almost anthem-like with its use of marching, soaring strings, ("choirs of angels sing"), it evokes feelings of pride, and images of determined men on horseback galloping around, boldly overcoming obstacles. Funny thing is, the lyrics do not really suggest such a cinematic interpretation, but nonetheless, the song leaves one feeling victorious and triumphant about something whatever it may be.
"Last Tide" is a biorhythm of a lonely man gazing out to sea, pleading and praying "Come to me, my love, one more night/ 'Cause I just want to hold you close again" sung with dignity in a calm voice full of grief, like a sad worshipper kneeling in the pews of a quiet and beautiful church, asking for guidance and patiently waiting for the silence to answer. Then, with the fluid resignation of a wave disappearing into the shore, "Floating" continues the meditation with a guitar that literally sounds like tropical water.
"Gentle Moon" is the most commercially viable song on the album (which should not be held against it). It has all the qualities of a great love song, desperate yet romantic ("Gentle moon, find her soon"), transcendent philosophical inspiration ("Dreams escape fire, they won't tire...souls escape fire, they rise higher"), sound advice ("All secrets and lies, let them out"), and wonderful music for a contemplative drive while trying to figure out which road to travel next.
"Lily and Parrots" gets the boat rocking again, and its lyrics are some of Kozelek's most enchanting. It is followed by the captivating epic "Duk Ku Kim," and then an instrumental of Portuguese guitar, "Si, Paloma," which adds a subtle Renaissance flavor to the album, conjuring an image of Kozelek as troubadour, strolling the streets of an ancient Mediterranean town.
Ghosts of the Great Highway is one of those albums that you want to have around for when life gets you down. It's comforting to know you have a few albums waiting in your corner to dress your wounds and give support during those painful, exhausting, ugly, and/or confused moments of your life. Times when your heart is bleeding after ending up on the wrong end of the right decision. Times when you're dancing in circles just trying to keep from getting knocked off your feet by someone who looked you in the eye, shook your hand, promised to play fair, and lied. The songs of Sun Kil Moon will remind you that the triumph of the spirit is worth fighting for.