The Sweet Science

Mark Kozelek floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee

One of the most noticeable elements of Ghosts of the Great Highway, Mark Kozelek's record under the moniker Sun Kil Moon, is its preoccupation with boxers.

The ghosts of pugilists both acclaimed and obscure peer from around its chiming, whispery corners: beginning with the opening seconds of "Glenn Tipton" (which name-checks Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston alongside the guitarists for Judas Priest) through the lumbering, 14-and-a-half-minute marathon "Duk Koo Kim" (named for a fighter who died sparring with Boom Boom Mancini) to the musically diverse "Salvador Sanchez" and "Pancho Villa." Even the band name owes its existence to the sport: Kozelek took it from the Korean fighter Sung Kil Moon.

It's an incongruous fit, at least at first, given that Ghosts of the Great Highway isn't all that different, sonically speaking, from Kozelek's past works, either as a solo artist or with the San Francisco band Red House Painters. Softly strummed guitars tentatively tease out skeletal chord structures. Muted percussion and feathery reverb effects purposefully blunt the visceral impact of the melodies, like gauze wrapped around a boxer's bleeding knuckles. Kozelek's quavering voice anchors it all, echoing Harvest-era Neil Young one minute and skirting the line between gorgeous and grating the next.

But if Kozelek hasn't changed his essential musical strategy since his last pair of releases — Red House Painters' Old Ramon, and his 2001 solo effort What's Next to the Moon, an acoustic album of Bon Scott-era AC/DC covers — the singer/ songwriter sounds like a scrappy, restless fighter itching to re-enter the ring. This is understandable, given the long stretches of time away from writing (including seven months working as an actor on Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous) and the bouts of record-industry frustration that he's endured recently.

"I'm really enjoying this record release more than any record I've put out in a long time," Kozelek says. "The last two records my band put out, the release dates were delayed so much. One [Old Ramon] came out two or three years after it was supposed to. So this is beautiful to me — to do a record and have it come out four or five months after I finish it. I feel very present with this record."

Indeed, for all its soft focus, Ghosts sports considerable heft, with Kozelek patiently dancing around the edges, waiting for the right moment to release a left-field lyrical uppercut. One example is the serial killer monologue that nudges itself into "Glenn Tipton" alongside rare insights into the singer's family life. "I don't know, there was just sort of a lot of things surfacing in this record that hadn't before," says Kozelek.

But there are also many elements familiar to fans of the singer's work with Red House Painters, including his penchant for prog-rock excess.

"I got all that from growing up listening to albums like [Pink Floyd's] Meddle and The Yes Album," he says. "For me, there was nothing abnormal about songs that were 10, 15, 20 minutes long. But bands like Kings of Convenience come out, and people think 'Oh my God! This is a new thing!' All of us are just doing mini-versions of things that were huge 20 years ago."

Although the former Atlanta resident — the first version of Red House Painters formed here in the mid-'80s, but didn't play any gigs until moving to San Francisco — isn't much concerned with whether people see his music as something old or something new, he admits to adopting the Sun Kil Moon tag for pragmatic reasons.

"My solo records haven't sold that well," he says. "I have developed a certain fan base, but there's just as many people that don't like you as do like you. [I thought] if I come up with a band name, maybe people will think this is just a band I'm in. Plus, I just think a band name is more interesting than a guy's name."