April 1 marks the release date for new albums by two American musical institutions. For one, the date is the culmination of a months-long marketing campaign that preemptively hailed the album as a “return to form” and drew on the most up-to-date viral video technology. It will be accompanied by an amphitheater tour with Modest Mouse and The National, as well as review and feature coverage by all major media outlets. The other album will be released on the artist’s own label and accompanied by minimal media attention. A solo acoustic tour of nine cities will follow, mostly in churches and small theaters. By the artist’s requests, there will be few interviews, but a small cult of fans will be listening as reverently as they have for the past 15 years.
R.E.M.’s Accelerate, their 14th studio album, will be the latest chapter in their nearly 30-year history, much of which has been spent as one of the world’s most popular bands. Mark Kozelek, whose new record, April, was recorded by his band Sun Kil Moon, has had a more horizontal story; his first band, Red House Painters, released their debut in 1992, and since then Kozelek has been digging deeper into the same languid sound while simultaneously forging his own iconoclastic commercial path. Both artists began their careers on flagship independent labels—R.E.M. on now-defunct I.R.S. Records in 1982, and Red House Painters on British imprint 4AD a decade later—and between them, we can see the spectrum of ways in which independent musicians can claim success. Neither case has been easy, but as Sun Kil Moon’s new record shows, there’s something to be said for ignoring the mainstream.
Hard to believe, but there was a time when R.E.M. nearly shunned commercial considerations, as well. The four original members—Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Bill Berry—were school friends who bonded over a shared love of underground music like Gang of Four and Television. Their first EP, Chronic Town, was an equal mix of Stipe’s mumbled poetry, Buck’s arpeggiated guitar lines, Berry’s propulsive drums, and Mills’ high backgrounds vocals. It was followed in 1983 by their first full-length, Murmur, a darker version of their trademark trebly jangle. Early R.E.M. songs followed in the melodic tradition of the Byrds or Big Star, but they were nearly contemporaneous with proto- and post-punk artists like Patti Smith and Joy Division, and they shared those artists’ fractured sensibility. R.E.M.’s combination of melody and obscurity would become the template for most “college rock” that followed in the next 15 years; among the most vocal proponents of R.E.M.’s greatness in the ‘90s were Stephen Malkmus and Thom Yorke.
Throughout the 1980s, R.E.M. released a string of now-canonized records that increasingly strayed from the enigmatic Murmur sound. The story of I.R.S.-era R.E.M. is that of the band’s gradual sharpening—Stipe became more confident with his upper register, the drums got pushed higher in the mix, and Buck’s guitar became gradually more distorted over the course of records like Reckoning (1984), Life’s Rich Pageant (1986), and Document (1987). Their popularity among critics and cult fans grew accordingly, until Document’s lead single “The One I Love” made them into Top 40 stars. Along the way, Stipe’s lyrics became slowly more intelligible. Reckoning’s best song, “7 Chinese Brothers” is an odd balance of melodic guitar and lines like “Wrap your heel in bones of steel/ Turn the leg, a twist of color”; by the time the mainstream caught up to R.E.M. in 1987, he was increasingly reliant on pop-culture references like those in “It’s The End of the World as We Know it (And I Feel Fine).” In a sense, Stipe went from being the next Patti Smith to being the American Morrissey.
The group signed to Warner Bros. Records after Document’s success, and the party line for hardcore Reckoning-era fans is that the Warner years merely constitute R.E.M.’s slow descent into lackluster commercial geriatrics, bottoming out with the disastrous Around the Sun (2004). Certainly a person who came to love the group during Stipe’s long-haired mumble-fests like “So. Central Rain” would despise a song like “Pop Song 89” or “Shiny Happy People” but that ignores the general trend of R.E.M.’s major label work, which was towards complex arrangements and an expansion of their early sound. Green and Out of Time, their first Warner Bros. records, are both overproduced, but their best songs hold up beautifully. And once the band ditched the apparent desire to write cutesy fluff like “Stand,” they recorded their best album—and one of the great records of the 90s—Automatic for the People. Stipe’s best I.R.S. songs—“Moral Kiosk,” “These Days,” “Pretty Persuasion”—are powerful in their poorly-enunciated ambiguity, but his finest moment as a vocalist has to be Automatic’s “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight,” which contains more melody in its four minutes than the entire second half of Document.
Automatic for the People is considered pretty dour for an R.E.M. record, but it’s got nothing on early Red House Painters material like Down Colorful Hill, released the same year. A collection of demos, Colorful Hill was followed by the band’s two self-titled releases in 1993. Along with acts like Low and American Music Club, Red House Painters were considered the progenitors of the “slowcore” genre, defined equally by ponderous tempos and self-hating lyrics like those that end “Katy Song”:
You walked away and left a bleeding part of me
Empty and bothered, watching the water
Quiet in the corner, numb and falling through
Without you what does my life amount to?
Kozelek’s been typecast as a self-pitying bastard for over 15 years because of lyrics like these, but his music and writing have evolved more than casual fans tend to assume. His stark ballads generally haven’t gained much speed, but elements of traditional folk and classic rock became more and prominent in records like Ocean Beach (1995) and the incredible Songs for a Blue Guitar (1996). In addition, mope-fests like “Katy Song” are fewer and far between, replaced by ruminations on memory and place like “Trailways” or free-associative songs like “Glenn Tipton.”
The latter song is the first track on Sun Kil Moon’s first record, Ghosts of the Great Highway (2003). That album is probably the most approachable and consistent album in Kozelek’s entire catalogue, but the band name change and label difficulties (it was originally released on Jet Set records) that preceded it speak to the commercial frustrations of his career. Red House Painters released four albums and an EP with 4AD between 1992 and 1995, but Kozelek left the label for the solo album he was recording after that. He found a temporary home on Island Records’ subsidiary Supreme Recordings, and the solo record was eventually released as Red House Painters’ Songs for a Blue Guitar. Another major label merger left him without a creative outlet for the follow-up; Old Ramon was recorded in 1998 but sat on the shelf for three years until Sub Pop released it in 2001 to the best reviews of the band’s career.
By Ghosts of the Great Highway, Kozelek’s music had come out under three names (he released a few records under his own name) and five labels. His response was to take full artistic control of his output and found Caldo Verde Records. The label reissued Ghosts of the Great Highway and, more recently, the debut LP from Retribution Gospel Choir. But April, the new Sun Kil Moon album, is a special one for Kozelek, as it’s the first collection of new material to be originally released on his own label. His hallmarks are all here—gentle finger-picked acoustic guitar, some fuzzed-out soloing, long, ambling song structures, even the two-toned vintage photograph on the cover—but April feels lived-in and comfortable, fitting for an artist no longer beholden to any commercial interests but his own.
R.E.M. made music like this once. Automatic for the People was the first in a trilogy of albums that sound like a band playing only for itself—ironic considering it was also the height of their popularity. They followed it with Monster, a “rock” (“with the rock in quotation marks,” according to Peter Buck) album that some dismissed as a bid to capitalize on the grunge explosion. But Monster has none of Pearl Jam or Nirvana’s angst; instead, it sounds like four guys indulging their T. Rex fascination after two albums of ornate folk rock. The Monster tour was their first in years, and along the way they recorded New Adventures In Hi-Fi, the band’s most underrated album. It would be their last with Bill Berry, however; he left the band after suffering a brain aneurysm and the group’s albums since haven’t had the intensity of Life’s Rich Pageant or the melodic depth of Automatic for the People.
New Adventures is a sprawling, varied album, the work of a band with nothing to prove, and while the trio of early- to mid-90s records it caps isn’t necessarily the group’s best work, these are the three albums in which they sound most confident. This makes it the exact opposite of Accelerate, an album that feels forced and labored even when it’s rocking. It starts promisingly enough with the snarling “Living Well’s the Best Revenge,” one of Stipe’s sing-speak rants with some typically fantastic bass playing and harmonies from Mike Mills. But soon the record devolves into a short display of R.E.M.-by-numbers. “Man Sized Wreath” continues the group’s awkward relationship with funk (see also: “Radio Song” from Out of Time); “Supernatural Serious” is the latest entry in Stipe’s oeuvre of pep-talk songs (“Everybody Hurts,” “Electron Blue”); “Until the Day is Done” is yet another acoustic-based waltz like “Swan Swan H” and “Try Not to Breathe”; and “I’m Gonna DJ,” the embarrassing final song, borrows liberally from “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” without any of that song’s joyous playing. Stipe’s vision of DJing in a heaven “with a kickin’ playlist” may be the most cringe-worthy lyric on an R.E.M. album thus far, no small feat.
In the many, many boilerplate interviews that Stipe has given to promote Accelerate, he’s mentioned that the band members finally sat down and talked before recording, leading them to “just plug in and play,” or “get back to being a rock band,” or whatever cliché he chooses to drag out on any particular day. Problem is, R.E.M. is a massive rock band machine these days, and you can nearly hear the gears turning as they try to cut loose. There’s an air of self-importance to Stipe’s political songs, a lack of poetry in his lyrics, a clipped quality to the production, and worst of all, the feeling that this band is trying very hard. For their first handful of brilliant albums, R.E.M. had boundless energy and creativity that couldn’t help but shine through, and for their mid-90s heyday they sounded confident and curious to push their sound to new places. Now they are the kind of veteran band, like their friends U2 and Pearl Jam, for whom even a “return to form” sounds like grueling work.
On the other hand, to say that Sun Kil Moon’s April sounds effortless would be an understatement. Kozelek still occasionally enunciates like he’s in mid-chew, but the words that do come through are as beautifully crafted as ever. The distortion that dominated Ghosts of the Great Highway and Old Ramon is largely absent, and instead Kozelek layers most songs in acoustic finger-picking and clean electric guitar tones. Background vocals, some courtesy of Will Oldham, are used more than any of his previous releases. I could keep listing these kinds of small observations, but they all simply add up to another stellar Kozelek release, another 70-minute encounter with an artist and songwriter whose music has never felt forced or labored even when his lyrics evinced personal traumas and his songs ran over 10 minutes. Kozelek will never play in front crowds as large as R.E.M.’s, nor has he ever written songs with the brilliant economy and band unity of that group’s best work, but in over 15 years he’s also never recorded a song that felt half-hearted or ill-considered. The worst you could accuse him of is his unchanging voice, and even that is of such a piece with his moody, languid songs that it too seems like a persistent artistic choice.
R.E.M. did the improbable and took four friends’ musical vision to the highest pop stardom imaginable for its time; their musical influence also proved to be as great as any other American band’s of the 1980s. But they’ve been unable to produce anything approaching their best work since Berry’s departure over a decade ago, losing their subtlety and energy in the process. Mark Kozelek’s success has hinged more on personal vision—no greater a crutch commercially, but, as April proves, a more reliable and renewable resource. R.E.M. has earned a spot in rock history, but Mark Kozelek will be remembered by a smaller cult for being a more consistent and purposeful artist. At a point in his career when bigger bands are straining to get people just to notice them again, Kozelek still enthralls because he forces his audience to slow down and listen harder.