It’s hard to believe that Mark Kozelek has been writing and recording songs for over 25 years, given that most people have only become familiar with him as the rambling troubadour behind Benji and the unpleasant jackass behind several highly-publicized feuds. Before his songwriting style took a drastic turn with 2012’s Among The Leaves, Kozelek was a fairly straightforward songwriter, both on earlier Sun Kil Moon albums like April and Ghosts Of The Great Highway and on his work with Red House Painters. The latter has surprisingly not been the topic of much discussion among music fans since Kozelek’s rise to prominence; more than a few people I’ve met have dismissed the band outright, treating them as a stepping stone on Koz’s journey to greatness. Of course, that’s a flippant way to treat any part of an artist’s body of work, especially given how much of an effect Red House Painters still has on Kozelek to this day. Because, for all the touted honesty and sincerity of his newest work, Kozelek never made music as pure and sincere as he did with Red House Painters, even if it took a frustratingly long time for anyone to hear it.
It’s important to note that Red House Painters is a band, first and foremost. So, while Kozelek remains at the center of everything on these four albums (the band’s entire run on 4AD), the songs are written with a more collaborative spirit in mind. These are also more polished albums, still spare and insular but treated with far more professional hands than the tossed-off sounding SKM work. The result is something closer to slowcore than folk; this is music that has more in common with Codeine than with Conor Oberst.
Of the four albums included in 4AD’s lavish re-issue, Down Colorful Hill may sound the closest to modern Kozelek, if only because it’s not quite a real album. It’s a collection of polished demos, and the songs sound as such. They meander and amble without much focus, as if Kozelek and his band are still working out how they want these songs to sound. That’s not to say that this album is just Kozelek and his guitar, though; drums pound and guitars fill the spaces of the songs with a gentle fuzz, in case you weren’t sure that 4AD was putting this album out. It’s a promising record, but it only slightly hinted at what was to come.
Whatever debate exists over the quality of the Red House Painters catalog, it’s hard to deny that their first self-titled album (the “Rollercoaster” album) is their finest. Here, Kozelek took fuller control over the band, acting as the producer as well as the principal songwriter. The songs are the finest he’s ever done (“Grace Cathedral Park” and “Mistress” are undeniable masterpieces), and the atmosphere that the band creates through their playing and Kozelek’s production choices would define them for years to come. Their second self-titled album (the “Bridge” album), though, is a different creature entirely. Consisting of the previous album’s leftover sessions, Bridge is looser and more playful – well, about as playful as a Red House Painters album can get. Some songs carry over the feel of the previous album; surprisingly, an alternate take of Rollercoaster’s “New Jersey” isn’t one of them. These albums are of a pair, much in the way that Radiohead would make Kid A and Amnesiac a few years later. Like that famous pairing, there is one clear masterpiece here and one charming collection of odds and ends.
The cracks of the band start to show with Ocean Beach, a Red House Painters album in name only. Here, Kozelek begins taking the form of a proper singer-songwriter, with the band’s contributions held back more so than ever. It would have been a recipe for disaster had the end result not been so devastatingly beautiful. Kozelek is at his most melodic, keeping his arrangements clear and reserved to achieve the greatest emotional impact. There’s an even greater emotional honesty present on songs like “San Geronimo” and “Drop.” Kozelek delves deeper into his personal turmoil here, but he’s still working as a poet, not the word-vomit songsmith we know and tolerate today. It would be the closest he came to a straightforward singer-songwriter album until 1996’s Songs For A Blue Guitar, but it remains his best stab at gut-wrenching emotional honesty.
Truthfully, that honesty is what seems lacking on the newer Sun Kil Moon albums. Nowadays, it seems as if Kozelek is narrating his life without engaging in it. He seems content to just let things pass him by, stopping to interact with the world only if he needs to sufficiently troll someone. But he was once an active participant; he once felt things and needed to express them in a way that few people at the time understood. There’s an honesty to the Red House Painters material that is rarely tapped into by any artist, even the person who wrote and recorded these songs. It’s definitely worth revisiting the albums in this set, if only to marvel at just how much of a genius Mark Kozelek used to be.