Review Summary: Mark Kozelek's magnum opus.
Despite my steadfast belief that this is a perfect album, even I can’t be blinded by the fact that the Red House Painters’ sophomore effort can almost, at times, be a chore to listen to. Difficulty isn’t a hindrance of Red House Painters I (or (Rollercoaster), whichever is your preference), but this isn’t an easy listen: this album can be cripplingly depressing. However, much like depression, there are alleviating moments of beauty to be found after and within the darkness, and it’s worth delving within RHP I’s considerable mass to find such moments.
Thankfully, RHP I eases into its girth by starting out with its most accessible track. “Grace Cathedral Park” is a relatively optimistic and upbeat folk track, despite lyrics that suggest otherwise: Kozelek yearns mournfully of a past relationship, striking familiar feelings of loss that resonate long after the track’s four minutes. From there, the music starts to parallel Kozelek’s depression: “Down Through” is a barren, straightforward track that features similar themes of yearning and loss that were found in "Grace Cathedral Park" . This time, this feeling is amplified by the music, which consists of nothing more than someone (assumedly Kozelek) absentmindedly strumming an acoustic. A feeling of loneliness and solitude is easily struck within the listener here, from both the subtle emotion of Kozelek’s voice and the starkness of his playing.
RHP I spans multiple genres throughout its 75-minute runtime, and Kozelek’s apparent expertise at each experiment---the dissonant shoegaze of the first version of “Mistress”, the dreamy pop of “Dragonflies”, the gaping crescendos and epic feel of “Mother”---evidences the man’s vast talents, and prevents RHP I from becoming stale and overlong. Despite these song’s tempos never getting any faster than ‘slow’, each song is reasonably different: every piece is rather entertaining and interesting, either musically or lyrically. Each is great in its own right.
However, much of RHP I is rather same-y musically. Compared to the skeletal and draining Down Colorful Hill, RHP I is nearly ornate: mostly every track is preformed with a full band, and each song is fully fleshed out, all possible space occupied by Gorden Mack’s bipolar guitar playing (often switching from despairingly emaciated to abrasively dissonant) and Anthony Koutsos’s full, thick drumming. Sure, some of RHP I’s instrumentation can seem like standard-issue slowcore, but that’s where Kozelek’s relatable lyrics come in, where his often-depressing tales really shine.
I can understand someone being imposed by this album’s relative girth, but I really do stress how much better RHP I works when played as an entire album. The album evokes the ups and downs of depression throughout its own rises and falls; despite never getting overly optimistic, songs like “Dragonflies” and “New Jersey” call to mind some happier times, and Kozelek seems less hesitant to relive such times, as evidenced through his delivery. These songs seem jarring when they’re neighboring songs like “Mistress”, which finds our narrator considering losing himself to suicide. It’s stuff that’s uncomfortable and hard to swallow, and transitioning into such lows after reliving such highs might seem clunky and random at first, but not after you realize that such transitions happen commonly within our own lives, that such transitions are as cumbersome and ungainly when lived and experienced.
A lot of time of is needed to fully experience RHP I, so it should come as no surprise that Kozelek seems so concerned with the passing of his own time here. “Things Mean A Lot” is the most explicit portrayal of this theme, as lyrics such as “scares me how you get older/how you forget about each other” are sung so solemnly, so intimately, that it seems as if Kozelek is eulogizing his own oncoming suicide---that he’s admitting defeat, tired of reliving the glory years. It’s a poignant moment, and while such themes aren’t ever repeated with such clarity, they are repeated: “Rollercoaster” and “Katy Song” also focus on such wistfulness, such hopefulness, such sadness.
RHP I is an extremely humane record, and it’s easy to curl up in its nooks and clearings, to curl up and embrace its tenderness and its forgiving nature. Perhaps such benevolence is what makes every second of this bearable, especially when approached within the right light and in the right mood. Perhaps such munificence makes even the most meandering bits of this manageable. Unlike some similar-minded sadsacks, Kozelek never comes off as if he’s wallowing in his own sorrow or as if he’s an asshole, instead always coming off simply as a nice guy---‘nice’ being that frequently sought-after feeling that we’d all like to have. Kozelek never makes you feel pitiful for him or for yourself, and both are better for it.
RHP I can seem imposing in its lack of any real optimism---until the last track, as “Brown Eyes” ends the album on such a tender note that, despite the brutal emotion portrayed throughout much of the album, you feel instantly better as its two minutes effortlessly pass. It’s the sunrise after the dark, brutal night. And there’s no better way to spend your nights, and your sunrises, than with this album.