Sun Kil Moon - Among The Leaves (2012)
Take a quick glance at my last.fm profile and you’ll see that one artist in particular has been dominating my listening charts recently. The culprit is none other than singer/songwiter Mark Kozelek, who has a new album out with his Sun Kil Moon project. Having exhausted the extensive discography of his former band Red House Painters over the past two years, I moved on to his Sun Kil Moon material relatively recently, and discovered a wealth of brilliant musicianship and some of the most stimulating songwriting I’ve heard.
Admittedly, though, my experience with Sun Kil Moon early on didn’t give me quite as much stimulation as those early Red House Painters albums did. Thankfully, that changed around last month when Kozelek dropped Among The Leaves, a sprawling, stubborn, but incredibly rewarding new full length album from Sun Kil Moon. If this isn’t the best and most thoroughly rewarding Sun Kil Moon album — and thus, Kozelek’s best since the mid-90s — then it’s at least the most interesting and thought provoking.
What sets Among The Leaves apart from the rest of the Kozelek oeuvre is its intimate personality. Mark Kozelek has always been an intensely personal songwriter, straddling the line between the poetic and the uncomfortably literal, but never before has he crafted an album that sounds so genuinely human. He achieves this through a distinct alteration of his lyrical approach, trading in his more poetic tendencies for starkly literal storytelling bolstered by lush visual imagery. Kozelek reveals himself to be a consummate storyteller on this record, describing his complicated personal life with a master’s pen. I’ve listened to a lot of this man’s music in the past, and I can honestly say that none of his records have given me such a real and lucid idea of who he is as a human being as this one.
The songs range in scope from lengthy, convoluted dirges to short, gentle elegies, but each plays a critical role in crafting the listener’s perception of Kozelek. Although there is some thematic variation between them, the songs on Among The Leaves concern themselves mostly with the lifestyle of being a touring songwriter and musician, a lifestyle from which Kozelek finds himself inseparable. Throughout the record, he explores the many different facets of this lifestyle, describing both the benefits and detriments of it in grim detail. The pastoral opener ”I Know It’s Pathetic but that Was the Greatest Night of My Life” is an achingly brief tale of a fan’s desperate attempt to reconnect with Kozelek after meeting him a show, conveying a serenity that sadly deteriorates as Kozelek divulges more sinister themes. On “That Bird Has A Broken Wing,” he admits to cheating on his girlfriend while on tour, and then attempts to excuse it by saying that at least he isn’t “some tool named Brad” who “hasn’t got it up since wintertime.” Immediately afterwards, “Elaine” features Kozelek singing in wistful tones about a cocaine addicted friend whom he wishes he could help, but he can’t bring himself to be selfless because of the stresses of his own life. Kozelek certainly comes across as self-absorbed throughout many of these tracks, but it’s refreshing to hear a songwriter sing with such frank openness.
As heady and grave as some of these lyrical topics may be, Kozelek conveys them with a surprisingly carefree attitude; he spends much of Among The Leaves singing well within his range, and seems genuinely comfortable throughout many of the songs. There is pain deeply entrenched in these songs, but he masks it with an aloof attitude, calm, soothing instrumentation, and even humor. On the gently lilting third track “The Moderately Talented Yet Not So Attractive Middle Aged Man,” Kozelek pokes fun at his age and his lifestyle while still revealing himself to be a bitter asshole. Likewise, on “Sunshine In Chicago,” Kozelek humorously bemoans his life of “sign[ing] posters for guys in tennis shoes,” but ends the song by bitterly looking towards his bleak future. Perhaps no track says more about Kozelek’s motivations behind this album than “Track Number 8,” the ironically titled 11th song. “Songwriting’s lonely, songwriting hurts,” he admits, before listing a series of songwriters who killed themselves. It’s a weak point in Kozelek’s defense mechanism, but a highlight on the album.
From the sparse arrangements and utterly frank lyrics to the lengthy running time and occasionally ridiculous song titles, Among The Leaves was evidently crafted to rustle the feathers of Red House Painters die-hards, and to poke fun at the established tropes and traditions associated with songwriting. In effect, however, Among The Leaves does more than that; in injects a sense of of creative vigor into a songwriter who, by his own accounts, has felt the grip of stagnation in the past. The only person who should benefit from Among The Leaves more than the listeners is Mark Kozelek himself.
Among The Leaves is out now on Caldo Verde Records.