Release Date: Jul 13, 2010
Record label: Caldo Verde Records
Mark Kozelek has always been particularly graceful. Even when his writing has been intentionally challenging or obscure, the effect is never abrasive or off-putting; it’s the workings of a restless intellect. The trick has always been to avoid appearing self-conscious, and no matter how self-reflective and introspective Kozelek’s music and lyrics have been, it’s never been purely indulgent ramblings.
Beautiful rambling For Mark Kozelek, old ghosts die hard. The man behind Sun Kil Moon has always had a complicated relationship with the specters of his past, and on Admiral Fell Promises, he once again mines his memory and crafts an ode to lost loves, death and listlessness. Kozelek is an adept storyteller, always toeing the thin emotional line between hope and hopelessness; even at his brightest, a lingering sadness surrounds him like relentless fog.
This is an odd question to be asking in 2010, after he has spent nearly 20 years making music: What makes a Mark Kozelek solo album different from a Sun Kil Moon album? For most of the 2000s, the distinction was more than just words on a jewel-case spine, as he debuted new material under the Sun Kil Moon banner and then reinterpreted it in live or demo settings as a solo artist. Musically, it always sounded like a matter of electric versus acoustic, full-band versus solo guitar, jammy versus intimate. It's the two sides of a man who has turned himself into a cottage industry through his Caldo Verde label, releasing scores of companion EPs and limited-edition live LPs that keep his old songs alive.
The distinction between Mark Kozelek's nominally solo output (see 2008's The Finally LP) and his work as/with Sun Kil Moon (see 2008's April), has always been tenuous: Whichever name Kozelek adopts for a given project, he can be counted on to deliver heartland melancholia via spartan folk and somber vocals. And with Admiral Fell Promises, he appears to have completely fused his two projects, affixing the Sun Kil Moon moniker to an album performed entirely solo, with no instrumentation beyond his nylon-string guitar. It's a fitting setup for a man who approaches solitude as both medium and subject matter (“I'm just moaning at the clouds/Wanting to be known/While I pass the lonely hours”).
In Mark Kozelek's post-Red House Painter days, as Sun Kil Moon, his vocals have deepened from an airy pining into a richer timbre. His voice (often assisted, yes, by layering or reverb) runs thick with melancholy, and over past records -- like 2003's Ghosts of the Great Highway and 2008's April -- the music has echoed the deep expanse of his singing. Guitars swirl and drone, while drums (if there are any) give these couldbanks just the faintest push forward.
By my count, this fourth Sun Kil Moon record is the eighth album of original material from Mark Kozelek (spread among twice that many full-lengths), and if you need to hang a story on it: this would be the completely-and-utterly solo-acoustic-record (on the tonally limited nylon-string guitar, too). Before you say, 'So what?' or 'Is that all?', see just how many you can actually name, from the world of US indie, rather than specialist folk music or classical guitar. (That second Palace Brothers record? Surely, something by Songs:Ohia…? Nope.
Admiral Fell Promises is Mark Kozelek’s first album under his Sun Kil Moon moniker to feature nothing but his voice and acoustic guitar straight-through, with overdubs kept to an absolute minimum. With this “back to the basics” approach, the focus here is kept entirely on the vocal performances, the songs, and yes, his powerful and unique playing style. It’s interesting, then, that the album’s first lyric is this: “No, this is not my guitar.” Although that line by itself is a bit out context (the rest of the verse goes: “...
As Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek has grown older, he’s grown less obsessed with the details of personal relationships and more obsessed with the effects of time. Though somberness and length are ties that bind all of his work together, recounting his entire back story with Red House Painters here again seems a little misguided. That was great material indeed, but always mentioning it somewhat diminishes Kozelek’s achievements both as a solo artist and in Sun Kil Moon (for all intents and purposes the same thing with a different name), as if people wouldn’t still be listening if it weren’t for his past.