John Fahey was one of the first adulatory notes printed with the 1997 reissue of the Anthology of American Folk Music. He wholeheartedly acknowledges the superseding authority that Harry Smith’s Anthology has over any other modern information compendium of equal class (i.e. – the Dead Sea Scrolls). Even more remarkable are the comments that follow.
Fahey notes, probably with a crafty grin, that the hirsute folk musicians considered ‘the folk’ by Smith in 1952 are such because “scholars who write such things have said that the ‘folk’ is the culture of a group of people who’re at least to some extent isolated – whether by class, sex, age, race, language, space, time, religion – from the mainstream.”
After the death, birth, and rebirth of Smith’s “old weird America” the true mystic charm of folk music lies firmly in our perception of how lonely the singer feels to us. Just gauge the reaction of Iron & Wine fans when he stepped out from behind his curtain of tape hiss and recorded studio albums (good heavens!). The loneliness re-imagined in indie clothes for this strange millennium, cut straight through the core of folk music. In the spiritual tradition of the broad stroking milieu of Smith’s elemental America, (notice the colors of each album in the collection) Mark Kozelek’s second album as Sun Kil Moon is almost pitch black. If darkness were considered an element, April would be its gorgeous dirge.
The isolation you feel while listening to a Red House Painters or Sun Kil Moon album pays credence to the painstaking concentration its artist most likely lavishes over his pieces. April is Sun Kil Moon’s second true album in five years (the beautiful Ghost of the Great Highway the debut). Tiny Cities, a throwaway covers album from a man that covers his favorite music so well still stands as a puzzler. Perhaps only Brock’s quick-fire yelp lends itself to the material best. Kozelek felt lost in the torpor of bitter lines like, “Gonna hit you on the face / Gonna punch you in your glasses.”
Kozelek’s sleepy short-ranged baritone is easily enveloped by the inky instrumentation on April though. ‘Lost Verses’, like ‘Carry Me Ohio’ before it, places the acoustic guitar high in the mix as Kozelek sings about the song’s natural evocations: “light leading over hills and meadows.” He ambles about San Francisco like an Ebenezer Scrooge, peering through vignette windows. Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie (a obvious fan of Kozelek’s two-faced lyricism) lends reverberating back-up vocals to ‘Lost Verses’ and ‘The Light’. Their cavernous voices waft right “into the ocean glory.” The grimy electric guitar battle that serves as the end piece to ‘Lost Verses’ cements the unpredictable temperament of even such a slow-moving minimalist as Kozelek.
Many detractors of Sun Kil Moon and the more rock-oriented, Red House Painters, criticize the agonizing lengths at which Kozelek distends his bloodletting, letting it stretch across his canvas. Nothing changes on April. Six of the album’s 11 tunes stand proudly at 6 minutes or more and nothing is shorter than four. Kozelek’s melancholic fixations never seem to stand as outright obfuscations or pretentious emotional pandering.
The fact that none of this happens on April, argues for the brilliance of Kozelek’s perfected tightrope act. April’s moments of folk desperation and alt-rock chugging ensnare themselves like vines because of his engaging lyricism. ‘Like the River’, with its road-weary nostalgia, marries the two as Will Oldham’s warbling voice meets the frontman’s steadfast voice, “I knew her back from when she was younger / those days poured out faster than rabbits from a gun / Scattered like shells and lost to the sea / like the river the days move rapidly.” Likewise, ‘Moorestown’ recalls the heavenly days of a new love. On the dreamy ‘Harper Road’, Kozelek sings about finding a lover “stretched out like an orange taffy.” He adds to all of these nostalgic songs by playing a tender cover of Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s ‘Lucky Man’.
Oldham’s indelible quaver sings the chorus of ‘Unlit Hallyway’ like a breathy mantra. The scenery grows almost apocalyptic on the 7-minute epic, ‘Heron Blue’, a song that takes place in a hospital where the a city “is drowning in God’s black tears.” The acoustic picking serves as the vanishing heartbeat of a loved one.
Kozelek cuts straight to the inherent drama in any situation. Whether April is traversing Neil Young rock riffs on ‘Tonight The Sky’ and ‘The Light’, or the intimate travails of a traveler on ‘Tonight in Bilbao’, every moment is a polished gem that shines through his lyrical night. On the aforementioned ‘Heron Blue’, one of the most breathtaking songs on April, he sings, “Don’t sing that old sad hymn no more / It resonates inside my soul / It haunts me in my waking dreams.”
Kozelek doesn’t quite nail why the folk revivalism afoot in America is so potent or why we still romanticize the lonely artist singing his weird, gloomy, and poignant traveling songs. His self-referencing points out that emotional music can still grasp the spirit of that “old weird America.” Regardless of Sun Kil Moon’s alt-rock tag, April gives us another forlorn and picturesque cadre of folk songs to fawn over. Call it Kozelek’s Deserted Scrolls.