For a while it seemed like Sun Kil Moon would turn out to be either a one-off, a side project, or perhaps just another moniker for which Mark Kozelek to turn out some slowly accumulating eulogies whenever enough piled-up. After all, it took Kozelek five years (if you don’t count the still-curious Modest Mouse covers collection Tiny Cities ) to properly follow-up Ghosts of the Great Highway (2003), Sun Kil Moon’s wonderful debut, with the stark, heartrending April (2008). Since then, though, he’s nearly doubled Sun Kil Moon’s catalogue, to the point where with the release of his expansive new double-album, Among the Leaves, he’s now quietly and very nearly equaled his total output as leader of the seminal 1990s sadcore outfit Red House Painters. Not only does Among the Leaves represent the quickest turnaround for Kozelek under the SKM guise, it’s also, paradoxically, his longest duration-wise since his ‘90s heyday. None of which matters much if the product is of a similar quality to his longer gestating works; what we’ve seen, however, is a somewhat predictable drift into familiarity—and this when Sun Kil Moon didn’t exactly represent a drastic shift in approach from Red House Painters anyway.
If Kozelek was going to continue down this more prolific path, I’m glad he’s decided to go all-in with the more freewheeling gait of Among the Leaves. The last Sun Kil Moon record, Admiral Fell Promises (2010), was, despite its stripped-down, self-imposed nylon-stringed parameters, mostly forgettable. Don’t get me wrong, I could listen to Kozelek softly intone atop intricately picked Spanish guitar lines from here to eternity and die a soothed if not terribly rosy-cheeked corpse. But if I can remember anything much beyond that album’s aesthetic constraints it’ll take more than mental reconciliation as I absorb his new one, which stands out immediately as something far more brisk and song-oriented. If in the end it still suffers from what most Kozelek records do—namely, exhaustion—it’s a much more satisfying trip on a moment-to-moment basis.
This much is quickly apparent as Kozelek runs through the first four tracks in less than ten minutes. It’s a refreshing approach to songcraft from a writer who’s often done his best work in the long form but who’s lately leaned on his winding structures to compensate for lack of melody. Even many of the song titles here (“I Know It’s Pathetic but That Was the Greatest Night of My Life”; “The Moderately Talented Yet Attractive Young Woman vs. the Exceptionally Talented Yet Not So Attractive Middle Aged Man,” “Not Much Rhymes With Everything’s Awesome at All Times”) evidence a newfound, maybe not playfulness, but certainly a self-consciousness that some of his more po-faced work could have benefited from. The music mostly follows suit: the crisp, comparatively upbeat “Sunshine in Chicago” ambles brightly, while “The Moderately Talented Yet Attractive Young Woman…” sways loosely without growing monotonous. This opening volley alone is enough to make one wonder how a whole album of brief Kozelek songs would turn out. If he’s looking to set limitations and concepts around his albums now, it would beg to assume to that he could do (and has perhaps done) worse.
Even the tracks which adopt a similar tact as Admiral Fell Promises feel liberated from such un-dynamic confines. “Elaine” pivots through multiple movements but features an ingratiating melody and a succession of memorable lyrics (“The hospital called last night / They said you’d gone cold sort-of / They sent police out searching / Found you down at Fifth and Minnow / High on crack cocaine / You and Juan Valdez”) throughout its bookending passages to help the whole thing feel spontaneous instead of telegraphed. It’s enough to make one overlook the fact that you’re listening to a rather harrowing account of an overdose. “Young Love,” meanwhile, traffics in familiar thematic territory for nearly seven minutes, but again feels lighter in tone than some of the more oppressive songs that Kozelek is so good at constructing.
One of the longer tracks even turns out to be the most lyrically fascinating. The cheekily titled “Track Number 8” (it’s actually track 11) finds Kozelek working out his current inspirations and artistic considerations as a veteran of a scene that he now occupies all by his lonesome. It’s tempting to simply direct you to the song itself as it unfurls in such an interesting manner. But even still, as Kozelek follows-up, “Songwriting’s lonely / Songwriting hurts / The restless itching, a bed bug curse / Songwriting it doesn’t come free / Ask Elliott Smith / Ask Richie Lee / Ask Mark Linkous / Ask Shannon Hoon / To get up on stage and sing you a tune,” with “Ever wonder why there aren’t more than ten songs on most albums… / Well I wrote this one and I know it ain’t great / It’ll probably sequence at track number eight,” it’s natural to get excited about where he could take this simultaneously mature and ironic approach in the future.
Though there are some lovely moments to follow, the record more or less peaks with “Track Number 8”—once the churning, electric riff of “King Fish” hits, lumbering its way forward for seven more predictable minutes, boredom begins to set in. Either “UK Blues” or “UK Blues 2” (if not both) should have been obviously expendable, while “Black Kite” isn’t the most memorable closer, playing more like an outtake from Admiral Fell Promises than proper punctuation. But there’s too much good stuff here, and too much intriguing restlessness on the part of Kozelek, not to pique curiosity for just what he has planned for Sun Kil Moon at this point his career. It’s not his best record by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s one I’ll reach for more casually and consistently than his recent stuff, particularly when I’d like to hear a few different sides to Kozelek’s personality as opposed to solely the dyer, shades-drawn troubadour that he was in danger of pigeonholing himself as. If he needed to throw this many darts at the wall to see what best sticks, at least enough of it does to finally render Sun Kil Moon an unpredictable new entity. [CMG]