Review Summary: An overlooked gem.
Mark Kozelek’s music has always been engineered for a particular audience, a patient sort who not only withstood his tendency to prolong his albums into the 70-minute range, but cherished him for it. A sort that shared the romantic tendencies in thought that are commonplace in Kozelek’s lyrics, but also didn’t mind the sardonic pessimism that often seeped through and kept his written tragedies firmly in reality. A sort that is accommodating for Kozelek’s style of songwriting, a style that stretches his compositions into a breaking point, and perhaps even past, disintegrating any sort of attention given to the point where a listener will subconsciously end up using an endlessly droning Kozelek piece as a background, as a creator of atmosphere (like “Katy’s Song”, an eight-minute, 1993 Red House Painters song that features an extended coda perfect for such occasions), resonating on a level that couldn’t be achieved if cut shorter. A sort that can roll with the punches when Kozelek interrupts the caliginous flow of an album like Down Colorful Hill
with a song like “Lord Kill the Pain”, which is still a very sad song but a little more uproarious than other RHP material (if still somewhat subdued). A sort that can appreciate such idiosyncrasies.
Kozelek is undoubtedly aware of the type of pull he has over his devoted; he could, more or less, compose his 1992 debut over and over and make a career out of it. But he doesn’t. He sheds the typical slowcore (yes, yes, bad label, but w/e) clichés - you’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all, or however that goes - and simultaneously goes for the listener’s heartstrings while switching up his methods of doing so. This is why Kozelek is considered a lynchpin of his genre; not many others associated with slowcore are skilled enough to do so, and as repeatedly as Kozelek does. Before Old Ramon
was released in 2001, he had already pulled off cripplingly depressing (Down Colorful Hill
), nostalgic (Red House Painters I; II
), and warmly comforting (Songs For a Blue Guitar
). And that’s not even yet considering his Ocean Beach
, which pulls off the ambience of its title in such a tasteful yet rapturous way that it remains one of his most deeply felt records. So, basically, Kozelek had run slowcore’s course: how else could he conjure up the blissful aura of his best records, yet in an approach that doesn’t seem bland or stagnant?
The answer is, in fact, quite simple. Rather than penning sweet, depressed nothings about a girl and a place, Kozelek tries something different with his lyrics this time around, something that’s instantly obvious in Old Ramon
’s opening track, titled “Wop-A-Din-Din”. Yup, “Wop-A-Din-Din”. That’s how instantly obvious this change in mood and atmosphere really is: it’s even discernable within the titles. Anything called that isn’t going to be depressing or sad; not even a Mark Kozelek song. And it’s not: the song is a pleasant folk ballad where Kozelek declares his adoration of his… cat. Not of a girl living somewhere in London without Kozelek or featuring him asking questions like “There is no more mystery/Is it going to happen my love?”. Kozelek’s happy enough to be writing about his cat, apparently, and all the power to him: his seemingly endless tales of depression, isolation, and alienation, while beautiful, couldn’t help but make one pity him; it’s as if the man’s life was a personal hell that, to combat it, he had to share with the rest of the world. It seemed that he’d be depressed forever.
So, basically, after only one song (which, indeed, does spell out much of the progress of the rest of the album), the listener should affirm just how Kozelek has achieved a sound that’s so familiar and distinctly his, yet doesn’t retread old ground to the point of being completely derivative of past works. The reason is this: Kozelek, and his band of troubadours, has created something that doesn’t only sound nostalgic with Old Ramon
, but something that sounds vintage, something that beckons to a time of dust bowl ballads and Carroll County blues. Old Ramon
even sounds like it has dust all over it; Kozelek recreates a feeling of sandy afternoons and burning suns, something that’s distinctly American and specifically Western sounding. The full, confident strum of the guitar in “Wop-A-Din-Din”, the sprightly, clean playing in “Cruiser”, the earnestness yet confidence portrayed in Kozelek’s voice in “Byrd Joel” - as well as all the Neil Young, Anthology of American Folk Music
, John Denver, and Big Star cues taken in various songs - all ring out, and represent a tour of Kozelek’s personal musical library. Old Ramon
isn’t nostalgic, or depressing, or any of those feelings that Kozelek’s so known for conjuring. No; Old Ramon
is a tribute to the best of times, and the best of music. It, more clearly that other Red House Painter or Sun Kil Moon albums, shows exactly where Kozelek’s coming from, musically, and it strikes the same chord that these sounds and albums do with Kozelek, only instead with the listener.
Yet, this is still distinctly an album helmed by Mark Kozelek. There’s plenty of sadder songs about, and Kozelek still exercises his tendency to take his music into that aforementioned breaking point - songs here range from four to eleven minutes. But if “Wop-A-Din-Din” is a revelatory sign that Kozelek can
write an easygoing, even complaisant song while still making such a burdensome task like writing anything seem so effortless, than “Byrd Joel”, “Between Days”, “Kavita”, and “Smokey” are simply reaffirmations. “Byrd Joel” and “Kavita” are among the same vein as “Wop-A-Din-Din”; they’re acoustically-led songs that still have the strains of melancholy associated when discussing such tricky topics like love, but with a optimistic viewpoint that makes the song enjoyable and even emotionally pleasant to listen to. “Between Days” and “Smokey” are more of the electric, distorted, Rust Never Sleeps
-kind of stuff that Kozelek does quite frequently, yet with a propulsive edge. “Void” is also a epic worth mentioning, if only for its numerous and spectacular guitar solos, which add both variedness and spice to the Red House Painters/Kozelek formula.
isn’t happy-go-lucky, especially considering songs like “Michigan” and “Cruiser”, which are the kind of fragile, introspective stuff Kozelek has proven himself a master at. These songs are somewhat jarring, considering the context of most of the material, and the already lengthy album could’ve benefited from cutting these few. But Old Ramon
ends strongly, with the hopeful, distortion-ripped “Smokey”, the acoustic-driven, contemplative “Golden”, and the sardonic yet spryly humorous “Kavita”; these final three songs leave the listener contented, if not convivial. It’s a wonderful way to end such an album, one that twists through so many moods but never loses its focus nor betrays its influences. And it even makes the listener feel good. What's not to like about that?