It wasn't the first time I listened to Ghosts of the Great Highway. It took me a few listens to understand and feel the full effect of this album. It happened last night, sitting awake in my bed approaching midnight, lightning flashing all around my house. At this point, as light entered my room suddenly and left as soon as it came, the pure emotion in Mark Kozelek's voice finally hit me. The relaxing soft guitar and occasional accompanying band suited the mood and lyrics of Kozelek's voice perfectly, and I fell into the world of half-consciousness, the only thought in my head being the music playing into my ears.
Sun Kil Moon is the project of Red House Painters singer Mark Kozelek. The songwriting is entirely under his control, and for that reason every song is his feature. Songs range from a rock feel, full of distorted power chords and whatnot, and others feature just Mark and an acoustic guitar. Due to this variety, Ghosts of the Great Highway is a much more enjoyable relaxing listen than other contemporaries such as Iron and Wine. Kozelek's voice is unique, sounding like a mix of Thom Yorke and Sam Beam but even that is a stretch. While certainly not the best singing voice ever, he possesses a soothing quality in his voice, and never forgets the mood and feel of the music. Sometimes, his words slur together, and he cracks the occasional note. However, Kozelek doesn't let that falter him, continuing on with his story. Upon following along with his lyrics, one will find his lyrics are excellently written, often creating metaphors, taking simple everyday things and really meaning something completely different. To add a bit of richness to the quality of his recordings, Kozelek often tracks multiple voices of his guitar, creating guitar interplay underneath his singing, leaving more for the listener to discover on more listens. Also worth noting is the length of the songs. Most contemporaries of his cannot pull off such long songs because to create a relaxing mood, they remain on one or two riffs, but Kozelek realizes that many riff changes can occur without killing the mood. Even the 14 minute epic Duk Koo Kim does not drag on.
The album opens simply with Glenn Tipton. Glenn Tipton is the first Judas Priest lead guitarist, and the lyrics start by saying how some people like the other guitarists and some like Glenn Tipton. Many other names are passed around as well. Musically, the song is only acoustic guitar and Kozelek. The chord progression is only three chords, but hammers and pull offs make the strumming pattern interesting. Each verse begins to tell a new story, ranging from the old owner of a donut shop to Kozelek telling about burying his first victim. At about 2:20, there is a short guitar solo to break up Kozelek's verses. The solo itself is nothing to marvel at, but it serves its purpose well. After the third verse, a light drum beat enters to drive the song along to the end. The song ends abruptly, leaving a long silence to close out the track.
I buried my first victim when I was nineteen
Went through her bedroom and the pockets of her jeans
And found her letters that said so many things
That really hurt me bad
I never breathed her name again
But I like to dream about what could have been
I never heard her calls again
But I like to dream
Quite the opposite of Glenn Tipton is the rockier Salvador Sanchez. Salvador Sanchez was a Mexican boxer who became the featherweight champion. He participated in the first HBO televised boxing match and became a household name. Sanchez died in a car crash at age 23, never losing his championship belt after he gained it. Many other boxers are referenced to in this album, all referring to how they died at a young age. The song opens with a guitar riff that sort of has a dragging feel. Drums enter at a slow tempo. Kozelek sings a eulogy about Salvador Sanchez, explaining how only the highway had enough speed to stop him. The song continues to sing about more boxers who died prematurely. The song also puts a chorus in, breaking up the song from constant verse after verse. After the first chorus, there is a guitar solo, mostly an effect filled solo. The solo is a bit too long, mostly staying on one note for a long time, letting effects play around with it. The song continues along with more eulogies of boxers. The song closes with the main riff coming out of a distortion and a clean guitar solo finishes things off.
Salvador Sanchez arrived and vanished
Only twenty-three with so much speed
Owning the highway
Mexico City bred so many
But none quite like him sweet warrior
Pure magic matador
The longest song on the album by far is the epic Duk Koo Kim. Easily surpassing 14 minutes, Kozelek's songwriting doesn't seem to have the ability to write a song this long thus far, but he proves wrong. Duk Koo Kim is, yet again, a boxer. The song is 14 minutes long because his last fight showed Kim lasting 14 rounds. After he fell in the 14th round, Kim fell into a coma minutes later. The hospital performed emergency brain surgery on him, but that proved futile and Kim died. Within a year, both Kim's mother and the referee of the match commited suicide. Due to this, the WBC changed many boxing rules to ensure no one would die again. The song opens with a clean guitar riff. Drums enter and faint bass is heard. Kozelek sings about not being able to sleep because of a bad dream, probably telling the story of Kim's mother and the referee. The second verse expands further, telling how an angel coming down and returning Kim back. The chorus is short, giving a change to the riff. The third verse talks about watching the deadly fight and watching Kim go down. Kozelek then expands on the idea, saying you never know when you are going to die. The riff breaks down slightly, allowing a different verse and a different feel to come about the song. Giving a sort of ethereal angelic feel about Kozelek, the song gets a much more uplifting feeling. Ukulele fades in and out, adding a whole different dimension to the music. This section is one of the most beautiful on the album, with faint bell hits also adding to the feel.
After this, everything drops out for an acoustic guitar feature. He strums a difficult pattern. The drums come in lightly, playing on mostly cymbals to accent with the acoustic pattern. Other tracked acoustic melodies appear, causing many melodies to swirl around at once. A faint electric guitar appears, soloing over this rush of acoustic greatness. Kozelek sings, paired with the electric guitar so his lyrics are nearly indistinguishable. The guitar and voice are in tune perfectly, and the guitar starts to play slightly different from Kozelek's melody. A long guitar solo closes out the song, leaving the listener breathless.
Birds gather 'round my window
Fly with everything I love about the day
Flowers, blue and gold and orange
Rise with everything I love about the day
Walk with me down these strange streets
How have we come to be here
So kind are all these people
How have we come to know them
This album is more than just a tribute to dead boxers. It is a beautiful, tragic story of destroyed hopes. Few albums compare to the commanding meditative feel of this album, and few albums can take all the thoughts out of a listener's head and put the listener into a transfixed state of enjoyment.
Duk Koo Kim