Mark Kozelek released his first album, with Red House Painters, 20 years ago, and for most of those two decades he’s been hitting us with hushed, maudlin songs that ripple out unapologetically with an often all-encompassing sadness. At least until now. Among the Leaves, his fifth record under the Sun Kil Moon name, is his most curious release to date. It feels spontaneous and fresh at its best, filled with self-deprecation that pokes as his sad-bastard persona and stories that filter his careful detail through a new kind of wit, one that can seem, well, charming.
Like its predecessor, Admiral Fell Promises, this record is built mostly on nylon guitar played by Kozelek. There are other players scattered over the record, though, and he trades the rigid, classical noodling of that record for something much more stripped-down and approachable. The first four songs show just how basic things have gotten. The title of “I Know It’s Pathetic But that Was the Greatest Night Of My Life” sums it up well, with Kozelek recalling an encounter with a women, digging into the details even as he shakes his head at his own—and the girl’s—nostalgia. It’s a song carried by simple finger picking, and Kozelek is on his own early, but things get a bit more complex on the quick-fire, Cohen-esque plucking of “Sunshine in Chicago”. This is another song stuck in the past, a backstage story (of which there are many on this album) that finds Kozelek remembering his dad and, among other things, his time with Red House Painters. “My band played here a lot in the ‘90s,” he recalls, before smirking through the line, “we had lots of female fans and they were all pretty cute / now I just sign posters for guys in tennis shoes.”
It’s both funny and truthful, a moment where we see Kozelek seeing himself honestly without taking himself too seriously—which is a rarity in his discography. That approachability and humor continue in other travelogues like “UK Blues” and “UK Blues 2”, the former of which finds him running through a European tour and noticing how, say, in Denmark “everybody’s white” and “everyone rides bikes.” And then there’s the darker humor of kiss-off tune “The Winery”, aimed at someone who “left my rags for his riches”. He’s accompanied by shuffling drums and light strings, but his own guitar rips out tense flamenco bursts, while Kozelek darkly compares his ex-lover to an impossible to live up to list of famous people, from Sugar Ray Leonard to Ed Gein to Bobby Fisher to Martin Luther King Jr. These people have nothing in common with each other, except that they did something, anything. “Martin Luther had a dream,” Kozelek groans. “You never did anything.”
Even in the dark humor of that song, there is a wistfulness, a nostalgia that comes with the best parts of this album. As much as he cuts deep in that song, he also recalls boxing matches on the television. “Young Love” finds him missing friends that have drifted far away, while “Song for Richard Collopy” pays tribute to a late guitar repairman in San Francisco. Part of what makes these songs so wistful is how simply they are delivered. If the extended tunes on Admiral Fell Promises felt constructed and over determined, everything here feels off the cuff, like there weren’t more than a few takes. There’s a looseness in the playing, and in Kozelek’s straightahead stories, that make these songs more approachable than other Sun Kil Moon records.
Kozelek’s candor does lose its charm in places, though. If “Sunshine in Chicago” is self-deprecating and “The Winery” darkly funny, then other moments like “Track Number 8” are more problematic. It’s possible he’s being tongue-in-cheek when he mentions the weight of songwriting—“songwriting costs, it doesn’t come free / ask Elliott Smith, ask Richie Lee”—but if that’s the case he misses the mark, miring himself in self-pity when he invites the listener to trade out 9-5 (and obviously dull, quotidian) jobs to play his shows in Warsaw. Similarly, when he cuts into his friend on the pretentiously titled “Not Much Rhymes With Everything’s Awesome At All Times”, he’s heckling someone who poses as a poet, but only scribbles in a journal, but by song’s end he claims an unearned authority. “I’m an artist, it’s all that I got,” he admits, before wasting the goodwill in that admission by adding, “I know one when I see one.”
Aside from the equal parts self-congratulation and woe-is-me drudgery of those moments, what makes Among the Leaves falter is its overall insularity. Kozelek talks often of life on the road, and of playing his guitar, but his tales—detailed though they may be—don’t resonate. He seems put out by the grind of the road, where he would potentially interact with, you know, his audience, and instead finds solace in his guitar, in his songs. Not in sharing them, he says, but in playing them. Nevermind that the document on which you’ll hear these songs belies that sentiment, but besides that his desire to close himself off so much on a record that has its more relatable highlights is puzzling. The best parts of Among the Leaves show Kozelek stepping out from behind the blurry, echoing melancholy of his sound and showing us his humor, his insight, his knack for storytelling. There’s enough of that to make this record solid, but the sad fact is that Mark Kozelek is also trying to put walls up between us and him through too much of this 73-minute record, and the truth is he succeeds there too, to his own detriment.
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