Album review: “Down Colorful Hill”

Kyle Creager, Staff Writer

The name Mark Kozelek can bring many things to mind. For many indie music fans, it’s his work with Sun Kil Moon, for some it’s his many scandals and controversies, and for most, nothing.  Kozelek’s lesser known band, Red House Painters, helped to pioneer a subset of indie music called slowcore (a genre also shared by the bands Duster, Codeine, and Death Cab for Cutie). 

The debut album of Red House Painters; “Down Colorful Hill,” turns 30 years old this September. Released on September 14, 1992, the album was well received by critics despite the fact that these songs were barely finished demos. The unpolished sound of the vocals and instruments help to give the album a stripped down and raw feeling that amplifies the emotion and realness of the album. Only four of the six songs on the album will be featured in this review, however I encourage you to listen to the entire album. 

The album begins with “24,” a slow building song about growing older without achieving your goals. Despite only being 23 at the time of writing, Kozelek dreads another birthday where he still feels lost. The lines “and I thought at fifteen I’d have it down by sixteen/ and 24 keeps breathing at my face” give us insight into the mind of Kozelek. Five minutes into the song, the instrumental changes, and turns much darker. This transition sets the listener up for the next song: “Medicine Bottle.”

“Medicine Bottle” is by far my favorite song on the album. The song opens with three guitars that create a beautiful and somber listening experience. Heavy bass fills your ears as another guitar loosely strums chords, the sound of the pick dragging against the strings can be heard throughout. Lyrically the song is about trying to deal with mental health and attempting to communicate those feelings with a partner (a common theme in the album). The most crushing lines come from the perspective of Kozelek’s girlfriend, “‘You’re building a wall’ she said/ ‘higher than the both of us/ so try living life, instead of hiding in the bedroom/ show me a smile/ and I’ll promise not to leave you.’” The almost ten minute song continues to build, and at one point in the song, the lyrics are only from the perspective of his girlfriend and her friends. Kozelek no longer speaks about his own feelings about his illness, and can only dwell on the disappointment he feels he has become to the ones that love him. The final lines of the song once again come from one of his girlfriend’s friends: “‘Like two sides of a wall, that separates two countries/ he shuts out the world/ he once knew how to love you.’” I believe it perfectly encapsulates the feelings described within. 

“Japanese to English,” begins with a chilling echoing guitar melody, reminiscent of a church bell chiming. Lyrically, the song follows the experience of Kozelek trying to make his relationship between him and an ex-girlfriend workout. Kozelek describes the emotional barriers he feels have prevented the relationship from working, as well as the literal language barrier (“It’s not that simple/ this dictionary never has a word/ for the way I’m feeling”). He goes on to explain the tiring process of translating things back and forth, and the frustration of realizing there are no words he could say to make things work out. 

The last song featured is “Michael,” A simple yet painfully bittersweet song written about the loss of a best friend. Kozelek remembers back to his time with his friend, “do you remember our first subway ride?/ Our first heavy metal haircuts?” It is not known if this friend has passed, or if they simply lost contact, and some say Michael is a real person who saw the song performed live and became friends with Kozelek again. No matter the fate of Michael, the beautiful and bright guitar work ties the album together masterfully. 

Overall, “Down Colorful Hill” is a beautifully written and performed album.The lyrics and songwriting skills of Mark Kozelek and the musicianship of the rest of Red House Painters worked perfectly together to help create a new genre of music. I would recommend this album to any fan of indie music/alternative rock; it’s one of my favorites.