The Hauntology of Mark Kozelek’s Music: Ghosts of the Great Highway

Over three decades, singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek has amassed a fascinating, continually evolv ing body of work. Each of his stylistic periods are marked by various bands, differing instrumentation and radically changing lyricism. However, one characteristic remains throughout all of Kozelek’s work: his introspective, lyrical meditations on the passage of time into memory. This theme appears from career-early, dream-pop ballad Katy Song, on Rollercoaster(1994), to his later, stream of consciousness odyssey Dogs, from Benji (2014). However, I think Kozelek’s lyrical interest in the haunting endurance of memory became most apparent on Ghosts of the Great Highway (2004). The first record released under his Sun Kil Moon moniker, Ghosts is a ten-song collection of stories that weaves between tales of doomed boxers, unrequited love and national tragedy. What ties them together is how they haunt Kozelek’s personal life. Consequently, I think there is much to learn by analysing Kozelek’s lyricism via the lens of hauntology.

Hauntology refers to a situation in which the presence of a being is replaced by a ‘ghost’ version of the being. This ghost being is ethereal and is neither present or absent. The replacement of the original being, with the ghost being, causes reflection and longing for the lost possibilities of the original being. An example scenario is that of a widow. Her husband has died in war and she has been left only with a photo of him. Each time she looks at the photo, she thinks of the lost future they could have shared. Here, the original being (the husband) is replaced by the ghost being (the photograph). This scenario is then haunted by the lost opportunities and futures of the being (the husband). Hence, this situation is hauntological. Hauntology was coined by Jacques Derrida in Spectres of Marx, his deconstructive critique of Marxism (Derrida, 1993). The concept was later popularised in music criticism by Mark Fisher, whose collected writings on hauntology can be found in Ghosts of My Life (Fisher, 2014). Another prominent music theorist, Simon Reynolds, has written that ‘(this) strand of “ghostified” music doesn’t quite constitute a genre, a scene, or even a network. ... more of a flavour or atmosphere than a style with boundaries’ (Wire, 2006). Despite this, the majority of hauntological music criticism centres on electronic and avant-garde musicians such as Burial, The Caretaker, William Basinski and other members of the Ghost Box label (Albiez, 2017). As far as I’m aware, little exists on contemporary folk. Hence, this article intends to rectify that.

Ghosts of the Great Highway signalled both the birth of a new musical project, being Sun Kil Moon, and the continuation of Kozelek’s stylistic evolution. During his previous band, Red House Painters, Kozelek had gradually moved from the shoegaze instrumentation and goth-lite lyrical attitude of Down Colorful Hill (1992) and Rollercoaster (1993) to a more contemplative folk-rock tradition in Ocean Beach (1995), Songs for a Blue Guitar (1996) and Old Ramon (2001). As such, it was little surprise that Ghosts of the Great Highway would be a complete embrace of folk-rock. Although it maintains some of the aggressive electronic guitar crescendos of early Kozelek, the majority of the record consists of slow and acoustic ballads. The hauntological nature of each song varies. On some, such as Carry Me Ohio and Gentle Moon, the hauntological subject matter, or beings, are left intentionally ambiguous. On the ballads about the tragic deaths of real-life boxers, Salvador Sanchez and Duk Koo Kim, the hauntological beings are directly referred to. he repeated subject of hauntological beings, or ghosts, constructs thematic unification for the record. Hence, the title Ghosts of the Great Highway. The record's other major subject matter is that of the American rural landscape, hence Highway. The combination of the two thematic subjects results in Kozelek's idiosyncratic hauntology; the haunting ghost of lost, rural American life. This hauntology certainly owes literary and musical influence, Steinbeck, McCarthy and Dylan come to mind, but no other recent folk artist has so successfully indulged in it as Kozelek.

The record’s now most iconic ballad, Carry Me Ohio, offers the most universal hauntology possible; the lamentation for a lost love. Kozelek sings from the perspective of a guilt-ridden and heartbroken individual. He regrets his seeming apathy that caused the end of the relationship; ‘Sorry that I could never love you back. I could never care enough in these last days.’ He ponders why this relationship still haunts him; ‘Can't count to all the lovers I've burned through. So why do I still burn for you. I can't say.’ Throughout the song, Kozelek refers to this lost love as both being absent; ‘A million miles ago you seem’ and present as a ghost-being; ‘Heal her soul. Carry her, my angel. Ohio.’ It seems clear that Kozelek projects the haunting nature of lost love onto a metaphorical ghost-being.

However, Carry Me Ohio can equally be interpreted as the longing for the actual state of Ohio, rather than a past relationship. This is backed by the romanticised reflections on Ohio’s landscapes; ‘Wadin' through. Warm canals and pools clear blue. The Tuscarawas flowed into The Great Lakes. Ridin' back. Where the highway met dead tracks. The ground is now cement and glass. So far away.’ Perhaps when Kozelek writes; ‘My angel. Ohio.’, it is Ohio itself he projects onto as a metaphorical hauntological being (an angel). The significance here, is that an angel is presumably outside of any logic of time. In other words, angels are eternal while the conditions of the landscape, and Kozelek himself, are not. This is certainly shown in Kozelek’s longing for the innocence of youth and his memories of a presumably different Ohio; ‘Green, green youth. What about the sweetness we knew? What about what's good, what's true. From those days?’ Ever since Carry Me Ohio, the changing nature of America and the nostalgic longing for a time of rural innocence have been consistent themes in Sun Kil Moon’s oeuvre. As such, this interpretation makes just as much sense. Either way, the song’s subject remains hauntological.

On the eponymously titled Salvador Sanchez and Duk Koo Kim, Kozelek embodies his personal affinity for boxing. Both songs detail the lives of these boxers, remarking in awe of their accomplishments; ‘Mexico City bred so many. But none quite like him, sweet warrior. Pure magic matador.’ and the how isolating the life of a professional athlete is; ‘How have they gone. Felled by leather. So alone but bound together’ The particularly sad case of Duk Koo Kim, who turned to boxing to escape poverty and died after sustaining injuries in the ring, receives great sympathy from Kozelek; ‘And there in the square he laid down. Without face, without crown. And the angel who looked upon him. She never came down.’ In these two songs, Kozelek laments the tragic nature of how these boxers aspired from poverty, only to die young (both Sanchez and Kim died at 23). This can easily be interpreted as hauntological, as Kozelek considers their lost futures. Despite these songs looking specifically at the subject of boxers, they are just another in Kozelek’s long-line of different hauntological-beings, or ghosts.

The record’s other significantly hauntological piece is Gentle Moon. The song’s simplistic chord-structure, Kozelek’s unusually tender vocal delivery and child-like lyrical imagery; ‘Smile down on us sun, show your rays. When things come undone. All animals lead us to light.’, conjure the atmosphere of a lullaby. This is significant as it deceivingly contrasts the grim subject matter, the live burning of bodies; ‘When will the flame break. And spare the good people it takes. Oh, souls escape fire, they rise higher. Souls escape fire, they rise higher’ Released a mere three years after 9/11 and at the height of the US’s ‘war on terror’, Gentle Moon can easily be interpreted as being a lament for those who died in the Twin Towers. This is further supported by the lines; ‘Rainfall and voice sound for those of whom. Still are not found.’ (numerous bodies were unable to be located in the immediate 9/11 aftermath). If this is the song’s subject matter, then the hauntological subject is very clear; Kozelek sings for the lost futures’ of 9/11 victims and projects their haunting presence or absence onto an ethereal being; ‘Souls escape fire.’ It should be noted though that Gentle Moon is more varied in lyrical subject matter and as such, is open to further interpretation. This is apparent as Kozelek simultaneously reminiscences for a past relationship; ‘But if love was like stone, then yours was mine. Through to my bones.’… and indulges in cosmic meditations; ‘Stars, Saturn and moon glow for those who cannot get through.’ Although I have no doubt the song’s subject matter involves 9/11 victims, given the seeming explicitness of the references, I’m certain the lyrical variety is intended to construct a more universal meaning. This universal meaning is that the pain or suffering experienced in the most tragic of circumstances, such as mass killings, exists within one continuous flow of matter. In other words, the movements of the planets, death and love are all equally present in life. To be, is for all of them to simultaneously exist. Perhaps then, the hauntological being is not any particular being at all. Rather, Kozelek sings of what it means to be haunted by the very experience of being. As far as I’m concerned, this is the real essence of Kozelek’s lyrical depth; to write of the mundane and material while simultaneously meditating on the nature of existence.


Albeiz, S. (2017). Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World: Volume 11. Bloomsbury. Derrida, J. (1993). Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Routledge. Fisher, M. (2014). Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. Winchester (UK): Zero Books.

Reynolds, S. (2006). HAUNTED AUDIO, a/k/a SOCIETY OF THE SPECTRAL: Ghost Box, Mordant Music and Hauntology. Wire.

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