Spanish guitar music has a meditative and serpentine quality. Evergreen sourpuss Mark Kozelek has been enchanted with this particular strain of folk music since 2010’s musical travelogue Admiral Fell Promises. That album possesed a fairly basic recording setup, a style that Among the Leaves continues in stride. It’s just Kozelek, a Ramirez classical guitar and occasionally a Yamaha Flamenco guitar. The recording setup consists of a vocal and guitar mic. Simplifying over the years has been both a boon and a stumbling block for the former Red House Painters frontman. It lends his dour songs a certain cache, but the dry sound also reveals Kozelek’s limitations as a vocalist. His low voice is often flat and the high notes are clipped on certain songs.
That being said, Among the Leaves‘ analog intimacy reveals an artist crafting a “road album” free of myopia and tedium. It’s quite a feat, since so many artists write songs on and about the touring circuit. The songs here paint a haunting and oftentimes comical image of a forlorn man caught between memories of his past and flashes of brilliance while playing for his devoted fanbase. On the finger-picked doctor’s visit tale “The Bird Has a Broken Wing,” Kozelek sings, “I’m half man, half alley cat.” It’s both a stentorian declaration and a dead-eyed death sentence. Such a profound lyric makes a whole lot of sense coming from a musician that often conflates the life of a recording artist with that of a bruised boxer.
Among the Leaves‘ black humor continues throughout. The shimmering single, “Sunshine of Chicago” follows Kozelek as he pampers himself with manicures and pedicures before a gig. He sloshes around memories of ’90s groupies, itchy STDs, and his late father over a melody that resembles light shimmering off the surface of a perspirating glass of whiskey. Kozeleky is at his funniest on the crestfallen lullaby “UK Blues,” his comments on Denmark (Everyone rides bikes, everybody’s white”) and London (“It’s all the rage if your favorite color’s beige”) are curt in a manner that is beguiling if not slightly grumpy.
Such a long album (this runs 70 minutes and contains 17 tracks) is bound to test even the biggest Sun Kil Moon fan’s patience. There are plenty of pearls of wisdom to be gleaned even from the back-half of Kozelek’s fifth record as Sun Kil Moon. The highlight of Kozelek’s self-fixation is definitely “Track Number 8,” which vacillates from hints of loneliness and feline jokes to a frank meditation on the neverending tribulations of the songwriter. “These are some words I wrote down last night/I beat them to death and I can’t get them right,” Kozelek sings, later labeling his need to make music as a “relentless, itching bedbug curse.” It’s been said that writing a novel is akin to a writer opening an old wound and bleeding on the paper. The same could be said of Mark Kozelek’s discography. This type of rough-spun music isn’t for everyone, but Among the Leaves is a valuable effort regardless of its pockmarks and dogged minimalism. Enjoy at your own risk.