Review Summary: Kozelek sets his internal monologue to music, inadvertently reveals he's crazy in the coconut
When an artist releases an endurance test of an album, one made up of more than fifteen songs that fills an entire compact disc, they’ve usually embarked upon one of the following well trodden paths; first you have the ‘sprawling purge’ where the goal is total artistic freedom, they fire their inner editor and let it all hang out with little regard for quality control or track sequencing; then you have the ‘cover all bases’ release, an exercise in playing it relatively safe by giving everyone a little bit of what they want; or most ambitious of all they may attempt the ‘grand artistic statement’, unleashing a full-on epic replete with self mythologising lyrics and flamboyant musical gestures. 'Among the Leaves' is hard to pin down, it lands somewhere between all three of these stools, hinting that at this juncture Kozelek has arrived at a slightly confused place; what's presented here is the unmistakable sound of an artist entering a transitional career phase and winging it a little.
This album sees a shift towards the predominantly semi-autobiographical lyrics Mark would favour on the next two Sun Kil Moon albums, an approach that has split his fan base slap down the middle; to put it bluntly, half his listeners would like him to exercise some self control, shut the hell up and go back to writing nice melodic tunes. This new divisive style is typified by 'UK Blues' where Mark recounts the tedium of being on the road and directly refers to various shows he performed on a recent tour including a festival set he played in London (a show I attended) where Kozelek was left bemused as his trusty guitar was drowned out by the other bands and funfair noises. This disconnection with his surroundings is a recurring theme of the album; frequently Kozelek’s able to laugh off the strangeness of a given situation, but at the same time there’s always that nagging surety that this type of lifestyle will nevertheless continue to take its toll on his fragile sanity day by unrelenting day.
As a result this release definitely feels like a great purging at times, Mark venting his grumpy old man frustrations at will. The wry 'Track Number 8' (sequenced at track number 11 natch) finds him bemoaning the trials of being a musician, dismissing the song itself as not great, though in reality it actually serves as a microcosm for all that works well here; brutal honesty (he name checks Elliott Smith, Richie Lee, Shannon Hoon and Mark Linkous) mixes with cute humour (naming cats Monster Fluff, Half Fluff and No Fluff), candid self analysis flows into passages of poetic beauty. It takes talent to weave such disparate moods and lyrical content into the one composition but fittingly enough, on a song that obsesses over these creative challenges, Kozelek makes it all sound like child's play.
The excellent 'I Know it's Pathetic...', 'Sunshine in Chicago' and ‘The Moderately Talented Yet Attractive Young Woman...’ continue in a similar vein, each referencing intimate moments from Mark's past along with musings about where he finds himself now; however unlike later albums, here Kozelek chooses to mix up his material rather than run with this new style across all the available disc space. Stripped-down efforts like 'Black Kite', 'The Winery' and 'Young Love' instantly recall the style of predecessor 'Admiral Fell Promises' while 'King Fish' sports electric guitar and does a reasonable job of fleshing out some fuller textures on a predominantly muted album. The biggest departure of all is the title track itself; built around a strong melodic foundation, some light percussion and a vocal dripping in emotion this classic serves as the album's beating heart.
It’s easy to see how this could be labelled a frustrating release, an entire album in the style of that bitter-sweet title track would've surely been welcomed by many, but it’s also understandable why Kozelek chose this particular artistic direction; for the first time in a long time Mark’s left himself open, focusing on the intimate side of his writing. It can even be argued ‘Among the Leaves’ signals the start of a process of coming full circle, the confessional slant to the lyrics aligning these songs closer in spirit to early Red House Painters than anything he’s released since the mid 90’s; for whatever reason Kozelek wants us to know the man again, as opposed to just the musician. He’d take a step further in revealing his innermost thoughts and personal history on the next Sun Kil Moon album ‘Benji’, a far more refined and consistently satisfying collection, but the seeds of that album’s success were sown on this transitional and uncelebrated release.