Album Review: Sun Kil Moon – Among the Leaves

[Caldo Verde; 2012]

Mark Kozelek is personally responsible for some of the slowest music that I have ever had the pleasure of listening to. Despite their snail-on-a-turtle’s-back tempo, Red House Painters could gently pummel you with the glacial power of their music, and they were seldom boring. Kozelek’s new(er) project Sun Kil Moon has been guilty of mediocrity in the past, but never quite like they are on Among the Leaves. At 73 minutes, it is tied for the lengthiest Sun Kil Moon release to date (minus bonus discs), but it feels like the longest. By a lot.

Among the Leaves is glum and down-tempo, and it feels scattershot despite the band’s stripped back approach. Nylon-string guitar and intermittent percussion are the weapons of choice here, almost exclusively. Within the album’s 17-track expanse, Kozelek does as much thematic exploration as the traditional album format will allow him. Personal allegories (“I Know It’s Pathetic But That Was the Greatest Night of My Life”), social commentary (“The Moderately Talented Yet Attractive Young Woman vs. The Exceptionally Talented Yet Not So Attractive Middle Aged Man”), and tributes (“Song for Richard Collopy”) are all fair game.

Among the Leaves is flush with bright spots. Opener “I Know It’s Pathetic…” should grab your attention immediately, as Kozelek shares some treasured memories in a foreign but welcoming setting. “Not Much Rhymes with Everything Is Awesome at All Times” gets by on the merits of its title alone, but is complemented by lovely harmonies and an arcane kind of irreverence. Kozelek gets nostalgic on “Sunshine in Chicago,” reminiscing about his days with Red House Painters: “My band played here a lot/ In the nineties when we had lots of female fans/ Fuck they all were cute/ Now I just sign postcards for guys in tennis shoes.” You won’t know whether you’re amused, jealous (if you’re male) or if you just feel sorry for him. While restrained by most standards, the title track practically demolishes the sereneness of the rest of the album, with strings, salient percussion and forceful vocal performances.

For a record of this size, the runtime has to be adequately justified, and Sun Kil Moon are unsuccessful on this front. On “The Winery,” it sounds like even Kozelek is struggling to stay awake. The words blend together into a gentle hum, and their power is muted by the tone and enthusiasm with which they are delivered. “Elaine” is twitchy and feisty, but overlong. On “King Fish” and especially “Lonely Mountain,” Kozelek sounds unnervingly similar to Will Oldham, but without the fire. In particular, when the line “Assholes, assholes, assholes” breaks the near-silence forty seconds in, you’ll wish the rest of the song had the same bite.

For all of the engaging moments to be found in Among the Leaves, they ultimately cannot redress the five, seven, even ten minute patches of sleepy vocals and sober guitar work. Among the Leaves is peppered astute observations and touching stories, but some shouldn’t have made it any farther than the cutting room floor, and others would be better off as poems or spoken word. Ultimately what this record lacks is any sense of audacity or ambition. Sun Kil Moon are just content with writing music for themselves, and anyone else who cares to listen.