REVIEW: Sun Kil Moon - Among The Leaves

Mark Kozelek, whether in the guise of Red House Painters, Sun Kil Moon or solo, has always been about one thing: elegiac nostalgia. This is true regardless if he is singing about cats, ex-girlfriends or far away cities. Living in San Francisco does this to you. The fog and chill creates a sort of romanticism around even the most mundane of activities. It’s heighted by the fact that he grew up in Ohio, where the weather only conjures up despair that’s untempered by what Mark Eitzel (a fellow Ohioan cum San Franciscan) called “spotlight[s] to dazzle your eyes.”

No longer the skinny, long haired depressive of his youth, Kozelek’s moods now match his outward appearance—all sneers and double chins hidden by small bits of stubble. The pretty girls who once loved him for his combination of good looks and Byron-like songs have left, and he now has to make his living off sentimental sneaker-clad men.

And this shows through Among the Leaves, especially when it comes to his lyrical choices. He has written a naked mole rat of an album— out-of-touch and vulnerable, yes, but not without some serious teeth. These are songs about STIs from mysterious women, backaches, forced smiles and half empty performance halls. It’s a kvetching tour-de-force (though occasionally a sublime one), but still not on par with his best albums (The Rollercoaster record, Songs for a Blue Guitar and Ghosts of the Great Highway).

“Sunshine in Chicago” is a lament about life as an aging musician, colored by second-hand memories of his father’s life in the city. “Sunshine in Chicago makes me feel pretty sad/My band played here at lot in the 90’s when we had/ Lots of female fans, and fuck they all were cute/Now I just sign posters for guys in tennis shoes.” It’s all told with a lilting guitar melody and Mark’s monotone, earnest vocals.

“UK Blues” is a quintessential Kozelek tune—all gentle fingerpicked guitar and hard thwacks of a snare drum. It’s a minute exploration of a mood: Kozelek’s resignation to a career that has become routine and isolating (he is missing his dead cat as opposed to girlfriend). He’s homesick and tired of heckling fans requesting old “hits” and half empty shows. It’s less of a memorable song, than an excellent after school PSA of the non-drug-related perils of being a musician.

“Not Much Rhymes with Everything’s Awesome at All Times” is Kozelek’s take on Morrissey’s “Girl Least Likely To.” It contains some of his best lyrics of his career, and there’s a fine, bright melody that perfectly illustrates his difficult task. Having to tell someone in the in nicest way possible that there is no way she can be a writer. “I’m an artist/It’s all that I got/I know when I see one/And baby you’re not.”

While that song may contain some of Kozelek’s best lyrics, the highlight of Among The Leaves comes on the very next track. The song “King Fish” harkens back to Red House Painter’s Neil Young-esque guitar workouts. Kozelek is a massively underrated electric guitar soloist (check out his complete gutting of Paul McCartney’s “Silly Love Songs” on “Songs for a Blue Guitar” for a crash course). “King Fish” swings back and forth over the same hard ground for six and half ruminating minutes, then punctured by an almost psychedelic midsection that expands and billows like a black cloud dumping its rain on San Francisco Bay. It’s breathlessly gloomy, and I hope he makes another record full of gems like this.

In the end, Among the Leaves is a fine album that lacks some of the epic sweep of previous records. This record has a miniature scope that won’t have listeners sharing tracks with similarly-inclined friends.  But I hope Kozelek comes back to San Francisco soon to share his sublime gifts and grumpy visage.