In a interview with Pitchfork, Mark Kozelek had this to say about the album when asked about Among the Leaves being the longest Sun Kil Moon record in terms of number of tracks, “As far as the length, I wanted to challenge myself and do something out of the ordinary. When I was young, a gatefold album by Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin was something to get excited about, something you longed for. I wanted to remind people that there was a time when music required an attention span. I could have easily doubled my profit and made two records out of Among the Leaves, but the songs represented a certain period and it made sense to get it out there as one piece.” Hey, Mark? Can I ask you a question? What profit, exactly? Because I want to know if picking up an acoustic guitar is a better career path than the current one I’m on.
Anyway, his attitude in answers throughout the rest of the interview tells you all you need to know about the album. “I’m 45 and I don’t have time to spend two years of my life bringing in producers and dragging the record around the planet. I’m always moving forward creatively and don’t like stalling, trying to find the perfect snare drum sound. Or, according to 90% of this album, any snare drum sound at all, it seems. I don’t make demos. I don’t have the interest or the energy or the time. Demos are something you do in the early stages of your career, but when you get going, you just go in and record the song. With this record, I wanted to give my first instincts a chance without shooting them down immediately, which I sometimes do. Yup. I guess stitching together the separate parts of “Elaine” was just something that wasn’t worth the time, which is a damn shame, because that one has more melody than a lot of the rest of these tracks and because “I wish I could help you with your problems / But babe, I got enough of my own” is depressing, but unlike a lot of the rest of these tracks, doesn’t shove the depression down your throat. Elsewhere, nothing at all happens on “Red Poison” and “I Know It’s Pathetic But That Was the Greatest Night of My Life” exists for its title only (which is also a sentiment which I connect with deeply).
It’s also interesting he picks Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin as his reference points, because both ended up making decent double albums despite being more limited in scope that made The Beatles [The White Album] the standard to which all double albums must be evaluated. Among the Leaves – which would have been a double-disc affair had it been released in a different decade – is like Admiral Fell Promisesbefore it, an entirely nylon guitar solo affair (barring one electric guitar wielding “King Fish”), just thirteen minutes longer. Does it deserve to be? A resounding no. You can go ahead and listen to “UK Blues” once to hear those pretty choruses, but there’s no reason that song needed to be longer than 3 minutes long. You can go ahead and cut “That Bird has a Broken Wing” because it’s horribly offensive. Musically, he keeps alternating between a low whisper and sudden enunciation that makes a 2 and a half minute track feel twice that. Lyrically, he chastises his girlfriend despite the fact that it’s him who cheated on her (and brought home an STD to boot), and offers her the pathetic reasoning that “I’m half man, half alley cat” (what the fuck does that even mean?). And check out these rhymes, son! “[She] smoked like a chimney, dressed like a witch / Didn’t even speak much English” and “I know you’re hating me pretty bad / But I ain’t some tool named Brad.” Jesus Christ.
Lyrically speaking, as a whole, Among the Leaves is separated pretty evenly between self-aware humour and depression that’s so fake, it’s cringe-worthy (but I’ll get to that momentarily). The former is when it’s most engaging: him not knowing where the girl came from on “I Know It’s Pathetic” (“She said that she’s come from some place / A town called Troyskirt, maybe Troysworth”); the oft-talked about line from “Sunshine in Chicago,” “My band played here a lot in the ‘90s when we had / Lots of female fans, and fuck, they were cute / Now I just sign posters for guys in tennis shoes” (the song also has a pretty glistening riff); him being approached by fans after concerts on the travelogues of “UK Blues” and its sequel (“Tried a few new songs, they look at me like what? / Where’s “Katy Song,” “Mistress,” and “Grace Cathedral Park” and “When I was done, some drunk Irishman / Said worst night I’ve had since Bill Callahan”). While I’m on a role describing the positives of the album, I might as well write here that the stupidly long title of the third track has the most indelible melody on the album and “Not Much Rhymes With Everything’s Awesome At All Times” has got some nice harmonies and a great bounce to it in its second half (although a proper ending would’ve been nice).
Yeah, so Mark Kozelek’s form of depression. I can’t take it seriously, not because depression isn’t serious (it really is), but because he keeps fitting every line in AABB rhyming couplets, which anyone learns is the hardest rhyme scheme to take seriously if they paid attention to high school English classes. And when he drops lines like “Went back to my room / Feeling suicidal, feeling full of gloom” (oh, the redundancy!) “Track Number 8,” he tells us that, “Songwriting costs, it doesn’t come free / Ask Elliott Smith, ask Richie Lee / Ask Mark Linkous, ask Shannon Hoon,” it feels like he’s spitting in the face of people who are/were actually depressed in his pale imitations.