This week is a big one for new albums. Today, the Walkmen’s Heaven finally hits shelves. When we made our list of our 25 favorite albums of the year thus far, it landed at #2. Make no mistake: It’s a fucking great albums and you need to hear it. Sigur Rós’s Valtari is another high-profile release worth your time. But if you’ve been paying attention to Stereogum for the past few months, you already know that we think that. So we’re using this space this week to draw your attention to an artist who could easily fly under your radar — one who, in fact, has flown under mine for a couple of decades now.
In his various incarnations — Red House Painters, Sun Kil Moon, solo — I’ve had an easy time ignoring the work of Mark Kozelek up until now. From the occasional songs that I heard, Kozelek’s work fit into a specific strain of dour, morose indie rock that I didn’t much care for. Whenever I gave his records a chance, something I did a few times, all I heard was weird guitar tunings and barely audible depressive mumbles. Kozelek certainly has his fans — Stereogum founder Scott Lapatine is one of them — but I was resigned to the idea that I wasn’t one of them. Until “Sunshine In Chicago,” anyway. “Sunshine In Chicago,” the leadoff track to the new Sun Kil Moon album Among The Leaves, is a bright and sparkling acoustic track with a light, lovely melody and some lyrics that are pretty fucking hilarious on first listen and starkly sad on successive listens. “Sunshine In Chicago” is Kozelek singing about his own very specific thoughts and experiences, with no attempt to universalize them or even make them sympathetic. It’s Kozelek sitting in his motel on tour, before playing a show at (I think) Lincoln Hall, reflecting on where he is in the world and how adrift he feels when he thinks about that: “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 for guys in tennis shoes.”
That’s more or less the approach that Kozelek takes throughout Among The Leaves. These aren’t songs that’ll end up in a car commercial or anything; they are applicable to absolutely nobody else in the world but Kozelek. They’re funny sometimes, but that’s mostly because it’s funny to hear a guy on an acoustic guitar unloading concrete observations in the tone of voice that most of his peers use to vaguely plumb the mysteries of the universe. Kozelek recorded a lot of the album alone on a nylon-string guitar, and even on the songs with beefed-up instrumentation, he’s very much the focus. The melodies are, by and large, very nice, and the album can melt into the background of your day if you let it. But it’s really all about where Kozelek, a moderately successful middle-aged songwriter who spends more time touring than he’d probably like to, finds himself in the world. One song, “Song For Richard Collopy,” is very specifically an elegy for a deceased guitar repairman who Kozelek liked. He’s not inviting his audience to identify with that sort of thing, but the specificity works; it makes these small and focused thoughts resonate harder than they probably would if he was trying to pull those ideas out of focus, to make them work for everyone. And it helps that Kozelek isn’t afraid to sound like an asshole. Because boy oh boy does he sound like an asshole on a lot of this album.
The starkest example of that assholism is probably “That Bird Has A Broken Wing,” a song in which Kozelek talks about cheating on his girlfriend on tour and bringing home some minor STD, downplaying it as much as he can: “OK, so I brought home a little sting from a girl who didn’t mean anything…. I really love you more than that, but I’m half man, another half alleycat.” At one point, he attempts to explain or maybe justify his indiscretion by saying that at least he’s not some schlub at an office job, working all day and unable to get it up. On another one, “Track Number 8,” that disdain for 9 to 5ers returns; he sings about the difficulties involved in writing a song and offers to switch places with whatever working stiff is listening to that song. As you can figure out pretty easily from the title, “The Moderately Talented Yet Attractive Young Woman Vs. The Exceptionally Talented Yet Not So Attractive Middle Aged Man” is an attempt at mild self-deprecation that could not possibly be more condescending than it is. And “Elaine,” a song about a female acquaintance struggling with crack addiction, leads up to this thought: “Wish I could help you with your problems, but babe, I got enough of my own.”
Every time I hear one of those songs, I get a little stomach twinge of annoyance, but that comes along with a sort of admiration. Plenty of songwriters probably think the way Kozelek does, but the man deserves credit for leaving it all out in the open, watering down none of it, making no attempt to make himself seem likable. And he’s also really, really good at this sort of thing. In someone else’s hands, “Track Number 8,” for example, could be insufferable. It’s a song about walking around his neighborhood until he gets sick of that, and then it becomes a song about how hard it is to write songs, and albums, and to make your living as someone who does both of those things. It’s pretty clear that he started out writing a song, decided he hated it, and then, instead of crumpling up the paper, turned it into a song about how much he hated the whole thing without scrapping the early bit that he hated. And somehow, he makes the entire internal drama completely compelling. Same goes for the life-on-the-road song “UK Blues,” an unhappy life-on-the-road travelogue that works because of all of his pithy, legitimately funny lines about the cities he’s traveling through: “Bristol, Bristol: Cobblestone streets, people missing teeth / Bristol, Bristol: Is this really what people eat?”
I’ve been listening to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast for a couple of years now, and as plenty of people have already written, the whole thing can be an exercise in gritted-teeth awkwardness, much of it stemming from Maron’s unfettered need to air out his own demons and pretensions and resentments and sad stories. And those same painful qualities are huge parts of what makes the podcast so fascinating and compulsively listenable. Among The Leaves is pretty much that, except with gorgeously florid acoustic guitars. It’s art about, for the most part, shitty personality traits, but rendered beautifully.
Other albums of note out this week:
• The Walkmen’s excellent new album Heaven.
• Sigur Rós’s vaguely ambient comeback Valtari.
• Regina Spektor’s incisive return What We Saw From The Cheap Seats.
• Lemonade’s sparkling indie-dance sophomore LP Diver.
• 2:54’s self-titled debut.
• Wire-sharp Canadian rapper Cadence Weapon’s new one Hope In Dirt City.
• Scissor Sisters’ glimmering dance-pop foray Magic Hour.
• Saint Etienne’s O.G. dance-pop joint Words And Music.
• Abstract-rap motormouth Doseone’s art-pop experiment G Is For Deep.
• Marissa Nadler’s hypnotic folk LP The Sister.
• King Tuff’s self-titled scrappy garage-rock bash.
• Trust, the EP that Ford & Lopatin’s Joel Ford recorded as Airbird.