Like the output of fellow offbeat songster Will Oldham, it’s tough to keep track of Mark Kozelek’s discography; despite the man’s relative lack of range as a songwriter and vocalist, he records under a variety of monikers. Purists will quibble about whether the later Red House Painters’ Old Ramon and Songs for a Blue Guitar should really be considered solo albums or whether the Sun Kil Moon records expand on or depart from the Red House sound, but the truth is that Kozelek is one of those few performers who, like the Ramones, are all the better for being one-note. Kozelek’s original songs and often brilliantly arranged covers are crawlingly slow, painfully delivered mood pieces that can stretch as long as 12 minutes. All of the acoustic guitars and the Neil Young influence speak to Kozelek’s kinship with folk music, but his songs have always struck me as being closer in spirit with minimalist composers like La Monte Young and Steve Reich. Folk songs, even ballads, are often intense because they’re brief and abrupt, emphasizing their lyrical precision. Kozelek, like the minimalists before him, lets his compositions breathe and expand naturally, building to stunning crescendos or dwelling on a quieter theme for minutes on end.
The effect of all this quietness and patient exploration of song structure can be transcendent or it can be incredibly boring, and for both better and worse, April is more of the same. The first Sun Kil Moon record strayed from the formula a touch by including some songs about people who aren’t Mark Kozelek (the deceased boxers Pancho Villa, Salvador Sanchez, and Duk Koo Kim) but as far as I can tell without a lyric sheet, most of April‘s narratives are from the same wounded speaker of “Katy Song” and “Summer Dress.” April opens with “Lost Verses,” a ghost story of sorts that is lushly recorded: Kozelek and company add layer upon layer of open-tuned guitars, string sections, and overdubbed vocals before coasting into a Crazy Horse-style jam finale. Again, this is an old hat for Kozelek, and any fan could name half a dozen songs that flow similarly (the cover of “Silly Love Songs” on Blue Guitar comes to mind), but “Lost Verses,” like Kozelek’s best songs, still manages to be both soothing and the haunting at the same time. The nearly triumphant “Tonight the Sky” also recalls the Red House Painters recalling Neil Young, lifting its riff from “Ohio” but radiating despair rather than rage.
Oldham is featured on the dirge “Unlit Hallway” and the John Denver-esque “Like the River” and it’s a stunning pairing that will hopefully lead to future collaborations. Oldham’s trademark quiver recalls Emmylou Harris’s, enriching the methodical fingerpicking that drives “Unlit Hallway” and rollicking with the off-tempo jam of “River.” Adding Oldham to the mix is about the only thing “new” here and it sounds pretty much like what you’d imagine Oldham and Kozelek singing together would sound like. The overall sense of sameness to Kozelek’s songwriting has always kept him just short of completing a masterwork (“Like the River” is followed by “Tonight in Bilbao,” yet another 10-minute long, arpeggio-driven ballad with an unobtrusive string accompaniment that sounds awfully like what has come before), but how many other artists can boast as many near-masterpieces?