Comparing singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek to Neil Young has become something of a critical commonplace. There are certainly musical similarities: long, introspective songs with simple structures; memorable imagery; country and Americana touches; the occasional awesome guitar squall. And the sometimes-baffling career choices, such as Kozelek releasing an entire album of Modest Mouse covers. But there's one fundamental difference: Part of Young's enduring appeal, it seems to me, is that he's always singing to a person, if not to a nation or even the world. Kozelek's appeal, on the other hand, is that he seems to always sing to himself.
Since his early days in the nearly mythical San Francisco-based Red House Painters, Kozelek's calling card has been his introspective mumble, which sets bleak, confessional lyrics to rich melodies and spare, fingerpicked guitar. Finding a champion early on in fellow San Francisco confessional songwriter Mark Eitzel, of American Music Club, RHP's first album came out in 1992 on the influential 4AD label, paving the way for early emo like Pedro the Lion.
Ocean Beach, the group's last for the 4AD label, is a fan favorite, but when the follow-up album, Old Ramon, got stuck in label-merger limbo, Kozelek began performing under his own name. He released Rock 'n' Roll Singer in 2000 and What's Next to the Moon in 2001, both dominated by his radical reworkings of AC/DC songs; Old Ramon eventually found a home on the Sub Pop label. Kozelek's also appeared in films, most memorably as the bumbling bassist in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous, and in 2002, he published a collection of lyrics called Nights of Passed Over, now available in the U.S. for the first time, with updated content and a CD of rarities.
In 2002, he began releasing recordings under the name Sun Kil Moon with Ghosts of the Great Highway, featuring former RHP bandmate Anthony Koutsos as well as American Music Club drummer Tim Mooney. Sun Kil Moon's Tiny Cities, the aforementioned Modest Mouse covers album, came out on Kozelek's own Caldo Verde label, which also released the new album, April, featuring his first original songs since 2002.
Part of the reason he took a break from releasing his own songs was the tragic death of his former girlfriend and longtime muse -- the subject of such mesmerizing Kozelek pieces as "Katy Song" and "Summer Dress" -- who passed away from cancer around the time Ghosts came out.
"I think I needed some years to pass, and some time to pass, before I could handle it all, to write about it and sing about it in a gentle way, where I was actually sort of paying tribute to someone, rather than just moaning about someone being gone," he told Death Cab For Cutie's Ben Gibbard, in an interview for The Onion AV Club. (Gibbard contributes backing vocals to April.) "I think that if I had tried to write this record three or four years ago, it would have just been a horrible mess," he adds. "But I think that I got to a place where I was able to put it together the way I did. So maybe that's why it has sort of a peaceful, kind of serene feeling."
So there's an additional poignancy to April's opener, "Lost Verses," when Kozelek intones, "I've risen up from the dead / With the burning leaves of autumn / If only for one last chance." The disc also features the sprawling guitar fest "The Light," a patient exploration of a basic riff that takes on added weight through repetition rather than variation, and whose clip-clop rhythms and loose distorted guitars once again bring Neil Young to mind. Other highlights include the cold austerity of "Lucky Man," where a fingerpicked guitar lends a medieval tone in counterpoint with the lonesome vocal, and "Unlit Highway," a nearly 10-minute excursion brought to a transcendent conclusion with the addition of Bonnie Prince Billy's backing vocals, sloppy guitar and banjos.
Kozelek may ultimately be singing mainly to himself -- exploring old wounds and the snatches of memory that illuminate entire cities and lives -- but there are plenty of people more than happy to listen in to his internal monologue. If you count among these, make sure to catch Kozelek on a rare Pittsburgh date at Diesel on Tue., June 17.
Mark Kozelek with special guest 7 p.m. Tue., June 17. Diesel, 1601 E. Carson St., South Side. $18 ($20 day of show). 21 and over. 412-431-8800 or www.dieselpgh.com