Whether recording as Red House Painters or Sun Kil Moon, Mark Kozelek isn’t exactly known for his sense of humor. But on the new Among The Leaves, Kozelek’s usual self-flagellation shares space with relatively lighthearted lyrics, with mixed results: Song titles such as “I Know It’s Pathetic But That Was the Greatest Night of My Life” and “Not Much Rhymes With Everything’s Awesome At All Times” seem borrowed from a more ebullient songwriter like Jens Lekman, though the music’s not quite ecstatic. At times, his humor swerves from endearing to somewhat clueless: The straight-faced “The Moderately Talented Yet Attractive Young Woman Vs. The Exceptionally Talented Yet Not So Attractive Middle Aged Man” comes across as more vain than self-deprecating. But the more playful takes on romantic regret—Kozelek’s wheelhouse—are a nice shift for the downcast singer-songwriter, who turns his more somber attentions to themes of death and aging.
On “Song For Richard Collopy,” an ode to a late San Francisco luthier, Kozelek sings of a lost friend with disarmingly simple details. “All summer he wouldn’t return my calls / Hey Richard, I’d like my guitar back by fall,” he sings, before revealing personal pain: “I’ve got a record to make and a promise to break / A tour in England, a smile to fake.” On “Track Number 8,” a self-aware take on the songwriting life, he outlines the dark side of musical obligations before acknowledging a host of dead colleagues: “Songwriting costs, it doesn’t come free / ask Elliott Smith, ask Richie Lee.” It’s a crushing moment, and somehow more bravely biographical than another ballad for an absent woman. It’s on these darker songs that Kozelek’s fresh urgency provides a needed spark to his familiar sorrow.