Double Play: Scott Kelly & Sun Kil Moon

Two reviews (of two tremendous albums) for the price of none!

Iann Robinsonby Iann Robinson

 

Scott Kelly

The Forgiven Ghost In Me

Neurot Records

There lays within all of us a duality in approaching our limited time on this planet. We think about existence and struggle with our place in the universe in two very distinct ways. One is a grandiose level, a plain of thinking where we ask the big questions about life, love, death and what comes after, if anything. Our minds expand on this level and we can accomplish our most profound thinking when we allow ourselves to open up to it.

Scott Kelly, one of the masterminds behind iconic experimental band Neurosis, uses art in this way. His new solo album The Forgiven Ghost In Me is part of this level of approaching life. Kelly is fascinated with entropy, the breaking down of existence as it moves closer to death and he applies that idea not to the brief time before we die but to our entire life. As soon as we are born we are breaking down and preparing for death. It’s not a bad thing, and Scott Kelly clearly sees it as a positive.

The Forgiven Ghost In Me contemplates these ideas with minimalism. Kelly uses the “less is more” style of songwriting to its absolute fullest. Most of the songs here are just him and an acoustic guitar. With one strum or by holding one note, Kelly sets up the emotion behind each song. From there he layers in his throaty vocals. Kelly has a world-weary timber to his voice, and that sound weaves into the spaces between the notes. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a doom and gloom album, Kelly is too smart for that. All the songs here represent various aspects oflife as we go through it. There’s no judgment here at all. Kelly’s words are personal but open enough to be universal.

“A Spirit Redeemed To The Sun” begins with the line “I love you like a flower loves the rain”. This is a love song but not a conventional one. The guitars strum a lonely tune while the vocals move between forgiveness and damnation. Kelly could be talking about repairing a lost love, asking forgiveness from loved ones or this could be the final prayers of a dying man as he pours over his life. As with all great artists, Kelly lets you apply your own life into the music.

What sets The Forgiven Ghost In Me apart from Kelly’s last two solo records is that this is a unit. His accompanying players (called The Road Home) have a real presence on the record. There are external ideas happening here though all of them are anchored by his songwriting. Sonically Kelly still takes his cues from Towne Van Zandt, a singer/songwriter who also asked bigger questions through quieter tones. However, there’s not as much of a straight influence here as before, which gives Kelly the chance to open up his abilities and apply things like expansive song structures that utilize empty space. At times the notes hang suspended and then there is complete silence. Kelly’s voice will shatter that silence or a harsher strum of the guitar will, but it never betrays the silence, which is allowed to hang as long as needed.

One perfect example of that is “The Field That Surrounds Me”. It opens with a slight but haunting keyboard line that remains just underneath the construction of the song. Kelly begins his slow and deliberate guitar line, quickly following it up with vocals that are strife with tension. Suddenly drums come in and the mix of all the elements is devastating. Kelly allowed us to be lulled into complacency by his use of silence and quiet dynamics. When the epic feel of this song comes in you’re knocked back, both fooled and drawn in by it. It’s a wonderful moment.

The larger palate of ideas to draw from makes The Forgiven Ghost In Me the most human and honest album Kelly has done thus far. In past efforts the songs were wonderful but guarded, as if Kelly needed to keep a slight wall up between himself and the audience. The Forgiven Ghost In Me crushes that wall and you can hear the difference. It’s in the arrangements, the guitar lines, and the use of dynamics and in Kelly’s voice. There is no pretension here, just the pure artistic statement of a man who is opening himself up more and more as time goes on. This album sends Scott Kelly down a new and untraveled roadand where he goes next is just as exciting as where he is now.

 


 

Sun Kil Moon

Among The Leaves

Caldo Verde Records

The second and just as important way we deal with life as it comes is by examining the details. Instead of the overwhelming aspects of existence we find solace within the tiny bits of life that stitch together into a larger quilt of experience and wisdom. Nobody is better and putting a heartfelt microscope to these details than Mark Kozelek and his project Sun Kil Moon. I’ll admit I’ve been late to review their newest album Among The Leaves. This record has become so important to me that I thought for awhile I’d lose that personal connection by reviewing it. I decided I was wrong, there’s too much I have to say.

Among The Leaves is a flawless record. There, I’ve said it. It’s perfect from front to back in both songwriting and pure emotion. A few times I found myself weeping over these songs and at others I sat simply astonished at what was being communicated to me. Acoustic guitars, the occasional wistful drumming and complex arrangements create a stage for which Kozelek’s lyrics are the main players. His voice is like a dream state, a vague whisper from some other place that wafts in on the lightest breeze. Even with such a haunting and gorgeous voice, Kozelek keeps a gravitas that holds you in the palm of his hand until he is done singing.

Brining it back to my original statement about Kozelek using the moments of life to create his tapestry, let’s start with the opening tune “I Know It’s Pathetic But That Was The Greatest Night Of My Life”. The song is a quiet but flowing guitar line that accentuates the lyrics telling the story of Kozelek packing his stuff after a show and talking to a girl. They share a smoke and a kiss and though both want more, their nervousness and awkwardness prevent it. During the song a chill will run up your back as you completely identify with what’s happening. We’ve all had that moment with a girl (or guy) we barely know, a chance meeting that turned into a lengthy conversation but ultimately went nowhere.

“Sunshine In Chicago” is a tour song. Kozelek dictates his day during a stop in Chicago and how the city reminds him of his father. Subtly you become drawn in with the tiny moments of the song. He sings about his father and laments his musical past with one of the best lines on the album: “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”. Its after that line that you catch yourself thinking about your own past, lost connections with friends or a time when you felt life was just better. A basic tour song suddenly has deep implications.

“Elaine” is an absolute triumph. A broken relationship story featuring a guy and girl struggling with the girl’s drug addiction. Kozelek structures the song in the same waves the emotions would come. It begins with the story, and the guilt and the decision from the guy in the relationship that he can no longer be involved anymore. Then she dies and he’s there to see it. Cue a tiny acoustic interlude and then the emotional fallout, the crying, the pain and hurt of the loss. This is sung over a harsher country-folk tinged guitar line. It communicates the pain before ending into another brief interlude.

Then comes the aftermath, resolution and acceptance of the death. Then another interlude and suddenly the protagonist is picking the girl up from rehab and she isn’t dead. Is this a dream or the reality? Kozelek never lets on.  By using this structure we are involved with the song in a way most tunes don’t grab us. The moments woven together will bring to mind any broken relationship, even if it isn’t as melodramatic as “Elaine”.

“Song For Richard Collopy” is another slice of perfection on Among The Leaves. Richard Collopy was a guitar craftsman from out west considered one of the best in the business. As the song progresses it moves from Kozelek’s oddly funny store about Collopy’s life and their friendship, to Collopy’s sudden passing. Kozelek never falls into false emotion about Collopy, he just laments the death of a friend and master craftsman that he respected. It could be one of the best examples of how good a songwriter Mark Kozelek truly is.

Each song on Among The Leaves is something to treasure. The title track uses slight drums, guitars and strings to weave the tale of a homeless girl who sneaks into Kozelek’s house when he’s on tour. What makes “Among The Leaves” so unique is that Kozelek never meets the girl, he just knows her from town and knows she stays in his house when he’s on tour. It’s an open letter to a girl he feels sympathy for but has no need to get to know. Kozelek also manages to bring it some nice details about where he lives to complete the picture.

“Not Much Rhymes With Everything’s Awesome At All Times” wickedly and intelligently cracks open the armor of a false poet. It also has some of the best lines on the album. “You claim you’re a poet I’ve not read a line/just seen the cover the notebook and spine” clips the wings of those people we know who carry a notebook around and actively claim poet without showing us one word. “You say you’re a poet but not much rhymes with everything’s perfect at all times”. Again, who doesn’t know a guy or girl who acts fabulous and fronts being a part of the art world but it’s completely false.  

Kozelek’s lyrics create images and feelings, moods and emotions that tie together in each song to create a story arc. These smaller arcs all feed into the larger arc of the album, the tale of Kozelek and his life and times. What blows me away is how his focus on the smaller bits of his own life connect to our own moments and how something so personal to him also reflects something personal for us. If Mark Kozelek ever read this review he’d probably laugh at my pretentious ramblings and unabashed gushing. I don’t care, Among The Leaves is an astonishing accomplishment from a man that has already given us so much and it currently sits in the lead position for my album of the year.