Mad for Sadness


“Try living life instead of hiding in the bedroom,” a frustrated girlfriend snaps on the early Red House Painters song “Medicine Bottle,” but the two are one and the same for House husband Mark Kozelek, and never more so than they are on Old Ramon. Song No. 1 lovingly catalogs the tossing-and-turning habits of Mark and his sweetheart, or maybe it’s his cat—either way, they wriggle to the rhythms of cheery sunshine-on-your-shoulder acoustic chords. He’s still undercover on the second track, and going nowhere because his girl is nude as the news and looking good. Always resourceful, on track three he endorses separate vacations: “Find another corner of the house when you need to get away.” The implied rift signals domestic upheaval—he takes a freeway drive. Mr. Kozelek has left the building. Like Odysseus, though, his thoughts remain at home: “And I know that I have slept in the warmest bedroom yet.” And so on.

Granted, Kozelek has mapped out scores of hidden angles and sightlines between those same four walls over nine years. His ports of call are insomniac ennui, crippling alienation, flat-on-your-back self-pity, staffed by an endless (and, given his indicated social skills, seemingly improbable) queue of girlfriends. He itemizes their torments in autobiographical, glacially paced laments shivering with reverb, his October-sky voice wafting in the echo chamber of repeated mistakes, with short sharp squalls of feedback registering like a door clicking decisively shut.

With Old Ramon, the last proper Painters album, sitting lonely on a shelf since 1998 (stranded by shake-ups at Island), Mark was obliged to leave the homestead and make new friends. He organized a John Denver tribute CD, cranked out a pair of session-staid solo efforts, and got cozy with the Gap, who used his cover of the Cars’ “All Mixed Up” for a holiday promo—adding another shade to his affinities with depressive Volkswagen spokesman Nick Drake. Kozelek has composed many a prayer for people there who live on the floor, but he now appears, for better or worse, properly medicated—perhaps simply by the passage of time. This was, after all, the youngster who wrote a song called “24,” as in years old, as in a miserable life already wasted and over.

Kozelek’s songs really thrived when he put on his shoes and went outside—accessing the site-specific autumnal nostalgia of “Grace Cathedral Park” and the blindsiding pastoral memory flashes in “Katy Song” (both from 1993). So it’s not surprising that this lengthy bed-in for peace finds its footing in geography. In Old Ramon‘s high point, “River,” an 11-minute plea to an indeterminately vanished lover, the sadness that imbues the windswept vocals and lapping waves of pedal steel isn’t a pose, an entitlement, or a state of mind assumed as organic and permanent. It’s rather a hard-won liminal space, a common ground you reach when you stop hiding inside your brain, and discover, at long last, how to meet the ones you love halfway.

Red House Painters play Bowery Ballroom June 20.