Mark Kozelek has been turning over the same obsessions for so long and with such rigor that on his new record he creates a kind of nostalgic feedback loop. Lyrics about “growing up Ohio mornings, sleeping in late” (“Lucky Man”) and the ghosts of departed lovers following him down halls (“Unlit Hallway”) reach evocatively back, both to specific moments in his catalog as well as to the memories signified. There’s never been an especial breadth to Kozelek’s music, nor has there needed to be, but an unmistakable break did occur when the Red House Painters left 4AD. The gauzy reverb, crisp snare rolls, and claustrophobic dissonance of the first records receded in favor of supple acoustic arrangements, cycling harmonies, and foregrounded vocals – accompanied in places by flannel-clad electric guitar. April, the second proper Sun Kil Moon record, is very much a product of this late phase. But in the same way that Kozelek’s songwriting compulsively works through the raw pain and ecstatic joys of youth, April pulls from the places where those memories first found expression.
“Lost Verses,” the melancholy opener, begins on familiar terrain, with Kozelek’s warm tenor playing over sensory fragments: the brisk October air, the rough feel of his father’s work coat. Partway through, the song’s softly rolling guitar figure hesitates for a line of lyric – “lie down in sleeply hidden shadows” – that’s delivered in a high, fragile register. It’s a strikingly 4AD moment – it feels like a nod to the soaring, amorphous notes at the end of “Mistress – but just as quickly the instrumentation cascades back into its lush, orchestrally accented pattern. The eight-minute “The Light” pulls a similar trick, its fuzz electric lead unfolding like Crazy Horse on quaaludes. The song is more than a little like Songs For A Blue Guitar’s “Make Like Paper,” cycling obsessively through a single crunchy riff while Kozelek’s multi-tracked vocals echo over top. Later, “Tonight The Sky” swipes a guitar figure from CSNY, played at half-speed, while the elegant “Tonight In Bilbao” mingles an expressive bass-end reminiscent of “Medicine Bottle” with a closing steel guitar squiggle that makes Kozelek’s Modest Mouse admiration obvious. These passages set forth memory as a governing motif, weaving Kozelek’s stylistic preoccupations together with his lyrical ones.
If April demonstrates Kozelek’s predilection for reaching backwards, in places it also finds him broadening his range. The austere “Heron Blue” has the pallor of an Appalachian death ballad, its tinny, ticking-clock guitar figure redolent of flickering candlelight and black fabric covering the mirrors. Will Oldham loans his unmistakable voice to “Unlit Hallway” and “Like The River,” lending a streak of rusty color to Kozelek’s blue palette. Yet, so many of the highlights here are vintage stuff: “Moorestown” is practically a roadmap to the places Kozelek has been haunted by for years – empty bedrooms, London parks, the Jersey shore – and he sings about them the same way he sings about everything, as broken relics of an irrecoverable past. Many of these slow, cycling songs stretch beyond the six and seven-minute mark as Kozelek methodically works through their meanings and melodies. The effect of having carved out this niche so obsessively is that an entire discography hangs loosely together in space and time, with “Moorestown” backing up to “Grace Cathedral Park” and “Harper Road” feeding the Great Highway. The routes Kozelek traces between his landmarks sometimes seem hardly to deviate, but with too many years between records, it feels like a gift to revisit such steady and familiar ground.