Sun Kil Moon - Among The Leaves | Album Review | By Volume

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Sun Kil Moon - Among The Leaves

Sun Kil Moon

Among The Leaves

Mark Kozelek breaks up with music, but it’s cool: we can still very much be friends.

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Author: on May 28, 2012
8.0
Caldo Verde Records
May 29, 2012

I am always fascinated by the meta-struggles of musicians and how they get made real in a song. We praise songwriters for reflection and honesty – words we might not really relate as listeners, because who are we to accuse a musician of being dishonest? – but there is something jarring about hearing Arcade Fire react to a fickle fan base, or hearing one of a thousand Okkervil River songs which say something sinister and uncaring about how “a song” makes us feel. A lyric, for instance, like “I can’t say that I’m feeling / that much at all,” is about music, but more importantly, about the person writing. What this type of referential songwriting details is usually the weariness of a late-on career – much like this well-seasoned Mark Kozelek, with years behind his sad slowcore music – has been completely free of a musical, existential crisis. But it speaks to how musicians must come home to writing a song or struggle for their art like it were a shitty part time job. I think Arcade Fire revealed it on The Suburbs with a beautifully bitter record, as much angry, yelping Bukowski as they were (supposed to be) Springsteen. And I think Will Sheff does it in the same way by asking how a musician finds the strength to be “honest” beyond writing the sentimental. These are two things we tie together with a fan’s trepidation: we may love a song for its emotional spark, but what happens when we have to accept that a musician’s most rankling work can be based, beyond a break-up, on a break-up with music?

There’s a certain uneasiness to it; if you’re one of the fans that Arcade Fire called out, it becomes a self-conscious act to sing along to “Rococo” or “Month of May.” If you’re relying on a musician to bare his soul to you, it’s an unwelcome moment when they step over into their music and let you know what person they are. And on Among the Leaves, it’s harder, because of the carefree way Mark Kozelek makes these admissions. He doesn’t so much break up with music as he does look across the room at it with scorn for what it used to be. The theme isn’t present enough on the album to exhaust it, but the pocketful of tracks presenting it in the album’s middle segment are uncaring and sarcastic, the work of someone who knows his own excellence but can’t get excited about it. The sarcastically titled “Track Number 8,” played with an ominous acoustic style Kozelek has long since mastered, reveals this odd feeling of disconnect: “song writing’s lonely, song writing hurts / song writing costs, it doesn’t come free / Ask Elliot Smith, ask Richie Lee.” Kozelek isn’t like his mentioned heroes on Among the Leaves; he’s more bitter and disengaged than that, carefree and telling it like it’s inevitable. “The business” isn’t ruining Kozelek, just doing his head in. I guess what Among the Leaves really does shine a light on is the side of Kozelek that’s sad for different reasons; this is the album of a laid-back dry wit, with melancholy songs but contrastingly funny insights. “Not Much Rhymes with Everything’s Awesome at All Times” sounds familiar to any Sun Kil Moon track in how it is played and sung, but it is different, a short and sharp mockery of wannabe poets who can’t quite reach Kozelek’s own level. This is that same sombre Kozelek, but singing about the song reveals a sharper edge to him.

Where the album isn’t about this little theme, it certainly feels tied to the carefree and weirdly relaxed state those songs are written in. The album is as intensively long as April was, but with so many more songs written for it, and each one given much less space than they were on Admiral Fell Promises. Here the tracks resound like little reminiscent ditties instead of endless stories straight from the soul; “Sunshine in Chicago” is a simply crafted and plucked song, with lyrics that don’t outlast the three minutes. When songs do reach the more typically outward-reaching Kozelek lengths, they seem as carefree, more like light experiments than intense songs. The casual airiness of Among the Leaves feels completely liberating to hear, even if Kozelek feels harder to relate to. Experiments such as “Young Love” and the segmented “Elaine” feel made to be nothing more than gorgeous acoustic songs; the typical Sun Kil Moon band jams, here represented by “King Fish,” are played for playing.

And yet this Kozelek who doesn’t really give a shit, and still thinks he is awesome, writes an album with so much to give. In content alone it is the staggering kind of record very few will make, with as much to it as old Red House Painters records. Those albums only felt content when they had taken your soul and shattered it into a hundred miserable pieces, but Among the Leaves has that intentional springtime feel to it, slow-burning and quiet in its convictions but never really bothered by anything. In some ways, it might feel like an infuriating record to behold, but in others it is a relieving record, and one to discover Kozelek’s style in all over again: the bass-y guitar sound that you’ll hear no where else and the subtle distinctions from song to song. Kozelek has always been able to write a song that sounds both sinister and pretty, and continues to do so here. The difference is that we know where a track like “Red Poison” is going to land, and so when the guitar shimmers, we feel completely content in the company of this suddenly easy man.

And so what’s so interesting about Among the Leaves, an intentionally pleasant and incredibly pretty album, is that it feels made from contradictions of what frustrates Kozelek and what he really couldn’t care about. These songs about song-writing and being fed up don’t carry any weight that isn’t later accepted with a happy shrug, and so “Track Number 8″ reaches its conclusion with a silly admission that the song isn’t great (with which I disagree) and that he’ll “probably sequence it at track number eight” (which I definitely can counter). Kozelek has always been one to write about his troubles, and at length, but Among the Leaves voices them in even quieter tones. He’s talking about songwriting being hard and costly, but he sounds like it couldn’t come more freely. When he doesn’t give us a shit and forces us to visit the world of songwriter struggles, it’s really all a day outdoors.

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