As most of you are aware, Sun Kil Moon is the band name used by Mark Kozelek, once of Red House Painters, and Among the Leaves is their 5th album release. It is an epic collection of 17 new songs, featuring mostly Kozelek with his nylon stringed guitar, although a couple of tracks do feature a full band.
Last summer I saw Kozelek play two solo shows at either end of the country, a week apart. One was at London's Field Day festival, one was in the Black Box in Belfast. He is known for his grumpy on -stage demeanour and it was obvious that he wasn't happy at either show. At Field Day he had a point – you could hardly hear him, but in Belfast he had the attention of a seated room and he played a very long set. I'm a long standing fan of his and I didn't recognise a lot of the songs, some of which were works in progress, but I knew that I wanted to hear those songs again. That night it seemed that Kozelek was deciding to write spontaneously and was documenting exactly what was happening to him in his job as a travelling songwriter. The results are here on 'Among the Leaves' and those gigs are documented here as one of the highlights – 'UK Blues'.
Maybe it's because I felt I was there as some of the songs took shape, but I can't recall the last time I enjoyed a set of new songs so much. This review is about a week late because I would rather sit and listen to the album than write about it. I'm only putting words on the screen so that I can persuade you to listen to it as well.
As I said, these are 17 new songs, no AC/DC or Modest Mouse reversions or cover songs in sight. Musically it fits very well with Kozelek's other releases, and fans of his voice and guitar playing will be very happy. It's a deeply personal album, taking minor details from the songwriter's life and making them into something larger and more significant. A word of caution though, if anyone is writing this off as one long moan, because Kozelek has managed to temper his depressive tales about getting older and the pains of touring and writing with a large dose of humour. One track, about an age-gap friendship, is entitled 'The Moderately Talented Yet Not So Attractive Middle Aged Man'.
It's hard to single out specific songs, because with every listen new delights emerge. 'Sunshine in Chicago' was written just before he went on stage in that city and combines memories of his long years as a travelling musician with stories he has heard about his father's upbringing. 'That Bird Has A Broken Wing' is about the tendency to lapse into casual encounters when you are out of your routine - “we're all half men, half alley cats.”
'Elaine' is a beautiful song about someone battling addiction, whilst 'Song for Richard Collopy' is a lovely homage to San Francisco's guitar repair man. 'King Fish' is the electric guitar tune, when they resemble a very fluid version of Crazy Horse as the guitars entwine, and 'Black Kite' is a beautiful closing song, with a beautiful acoustic guitar arrangement.
The collection is laced with regret, sadness and quite a bit of humour. I've already mentioned 'UK Blues', which is actually two separate songs about that period, and although it details the trials of that tour there are plenty of genuinely funny lines there.
'I Know It's Pathetic but that Was the Greatest Night of My Life' bares the detail of a long distance relationship formed whilst on tour, and 'Not Much Rhymes with Everything's Awesome at All Times' questions the credentials of a potential poet who is just too damn happy to be genuine.
Even way back with Red House Painters, Kozelek has a skill for dropping in little scenes that made perfect sense to the song. Here, that would-be artist or poet is sleeping alone with her laptop beside her, and he admits using up all his minutes in pursuit of the woman in 'Greatest Night'. The little details are set against something which could be life-changing.
Red House Painters struck a chord with me nearly 20 years ago, and I'm delighted to find that I'm feeling the same about Sun Kil Moon right now. I won't hear a finer album of this kind all year, I'm sure of that.