Although Mark Kozelek has composed and sung some of the saddest, most satisfactorily depressing songs in history, his profound, outstanding sense of humour has always stood out in his discourse and way of doing things. It has often been covered up by an undeniable layer of cynicism, which disconcerted his followers and threw them off, perhaps in conjunction with a fictitious idea of the former leader of Red House Painters as a solitary bloke in a permanent state of creative, but also personal melancholy. In reality, at least according to those who have had closer contact with him during his repeated tours around Spain, Kozelek is an ingenious, jocular, fun sort, who likes the good life and women. It is as if the tortured soul of his recordings, especially in the early days of Red House Painters, and the flesh and blood man who seeks out possible groupies from the audience and makes perverse jokes in the wee small hours of the morning were heading in opposite directions. More shag-happy than a heartbreaker, more of a cad than a romantic.
I would say that there has always been space for humour and sarcasm in all of his work, whether with his first band, solo, or in his latest stable project, Sun Kil Moon. But maybe never as much as he reserves for “Among The Leaves”, his new album, the fifth from Sun Kil Moon, which he also uses to laugh at himself. This is one of the themes of the album, looking at oneself without compassion, flagellation or lamentations, full of corrosive nostalgia. “Sunshine In Chicago” is the best possible example of this. He is highly inspired in it, singing some of his best lyrics: “Sunshine in Chicago makes me feel pretty sad, my band played here a lot in the 90s / when we had lots of female fans and, fuck, they all were cute / now I just sign posters to guys in tennis shoes”. Kozelek recalls the golden years at the front of Red House Painters in contrast to a less glamorous and exciting present, almost as if he had become a folk-rock version of Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler”, without the excess Botox and with a less decadent audience and circuit than the man in the film.
“I Know It’s Pathetic But That Was The Greatest Night Of My Life” talks about his encounter with an attractive young Russian woman backstage at a concert in Moscow, again with the same self-parodying tone, somewhere between pathetic and an epic loser. But “Among The Leaves” is something more than a bunch of especially funny poisoned arts, aimed at himself—it’s also a raw, direct demystification of life on the road and the routine of a middle-class musician. He doesn’t do it with the tone of someone who is above it all, but rather of one who has been up there, at the top, and over time has learned to see it as a relative thing, taking the sting out of his fall into a lower, more modest popularity and media status. Amidst dispassionate stories of endless tours, weird fans, depressing hotels in the UK, furtive and fleeting encounters, wild anecdotes and referential jokes—the quotes of John Denver or “Grace Cathedral Park” in “UK Blues” are a gag in themselves– the former Red House Painters frontman adds a brilliant chapter to the counter-chronicle of rock and its dream world. It is one of the most complete, well-rounded albums that he has recorded in recent years.
The particular compositional structure of the album also helps; 60% of it is performed only with a nylon-string guitar, the instrument with which the Californian has conscientiously composed all of the songs. In the final stretch of “Among The Leaves”, Kozelek lets some of his collaborators get in on the fun, to give the album more of the sound of a band. However it’s during the first part - where the singer-songwriter comes out solo, with short two or three-minute songs - that this new, more intimate, less typical group song territory of sound exploration shines the brightest. One doesn’t miss the more derivative version of his discourse; in fact, one appreciates that he doesn’t let himself get carried away with his passing instrumental whims in these compositions –his typical, famed guitar solos or repetitive loops– and that he concentrates entirely on the orchestration of a folk music with melodies and exultant choruses that reconcile us with the best version of our favourite antihero.