Sun Kil Moon – Among the Leaves
I know that after Admiral Fell Promises’ stripped down, classic-guitar meditations a lot of fans wanted a full band album, another landmark. There are a couple tracks with full instrumentation on offer on this release, like ‘King Fish and the title track, but the majority of Among the Leaves’ 17 tracks are brief (more so than any other Kozelek-penned record), nylon guitar folk tunes. The full band songs that do exist are outside of the album context that made April so dense and you won’t find a swirling, psychedelic odyssey like ‘Duk Koo Kim’ anywhere.
Kozelek still deals with memory but mostly in the context of reflections and non-sequiturs into the experiences of being a musician on the road, in the studio, backstage and in Bristol. Some of the humour that decorates the album works quite well alongside Kozelek’s alternately weary and bemused inflections. ‘UK Blues’ for example might make a nice “Broken Britain” campaign song for our Conservative overlords.
When Kozelek laments the usurping of his band’s pretty female fans by “guys in tennis shoes” on ‘Sunshine in Chicago’ I thought of the time I met him after a gig at the Roadhouse, Manchester sometime in 2009. I’m not sure I quite lived up to the description of his latter day fans as detailed in the song, but on the approach of this vacant wastrel in eyeliner with red and purple dyed hair I imagine he was a little underwhelmed. How do you say, “Who’s this funny looking scrote?” in American?
It might sting that Sun Kil Moon’s releases appear to lean evermore toward Kozelek’s light curiosities released under his own name than the grandiose statements on which that privilege was built. But on album number eleven (excluding solo material) you might say he’s earned the right to toss it off and write an LP’s worth of throwaway songs about being in bands for as long as it takes to make eleven albums. Most of them are pretty good, it’s undeniably his voice and Sun Kil Moon’s principle concern of memory is still paramount to Among the Leaves, even if it is delivered in the most frivolous way of their career.
‘Elaine’s story of a troubled woman shifts midway from the folk pop of the first few tracks to twangy country, but isn’t particularly powerful. ‘The Winery’ isn’t a standout but houses the pleasing little couplet “Robert burns wrote poems, Ed Gein dug bones / Martin Luther had dream, you’ve never been anything”. ‘Young Love’ however, the longest track on the album at 6.42, comes out with the kind of guitar melody you might hear played to tourists in town squares in the south of France, and builds into a wistful, finger-picked waltz that showcases Kozelek’s talent for making simple yet musically ornate arrangements into strikingly emotive songs. ‘Track Number 8’ broods as it cites dead heroes like Elliott Smith and Mark Linkous and then follows with self-deprecating lyrics such as, “I wrote this one and I know it ain’t great / We’ll probably sequence it track number eight”. The aforementioned ‘Sunshine in Chicago’ is brilliant in its charming, witty and melodic simplicity.
As to whether humour suits Kozelek I’ll go back to the first time I saw him perform. It was a solo gig at the Dancehouse Theatre, in Manchester again. He played a few weeks before the Hatton/Mayweather fight and anyone who’s listened to Ghost of the Great Highway or even looked into the band’s name will know that Kozelek is into boxing. Anyway, after he asked whether the reverent Mancunian audience (consisting predominantly of the kind of fans profiled in ‘Sunshine in Chicago’) were silent because they were scared of him, he got to the more serious issue of the impending fight. Long story short Kozelek said to his North West spectators with a deep respect for Hatton, “At least you’ve got something to be proud of.”
To anyone that’s listening to what Mark Kozelek releases now it shouldn’t matter that Among the Leaves isn’t a masterpiece. It shouldn’t matter that he didn’t intend for it to be one. There are plenty of good moments and plenty of average ones. But more than any of Kozelek’s material that deals with the past, this album focuses on the throwaway nature that memories often take – the specifics that are central to being at a certain time and place but difficult to convey in all their significance. And aside from its lightness and humour in nostalgia, Among the Leaves shows Kozelek as “just a bloke” as well as a romantic. One that’s concerned that his fans aren’t attractive young women anymore, that people only want him to play all his old songs and one that saw last year’s riots in England on TV and thought, “what a shithole”.