Much has already been made about the fact that Mark Kozelek is using a nylon-string guitar as his lone accompaniment on Admiral Fell Promises, his fourth album under the Sun Kil Moon moniker. But he dryly dismisses the importance of that fact through the opening lyrics on ‘Ålesund,’ the lead-off track on the album: “No, this is not my guitar, I’m bringing it to a friend.” It’s almost as if Kozelek is trying to distance himself from the intensely personal performances and vocals that colour the entirety of this record, claiming that even the instrument he is using to create these stark, beautiful songs is essentially borrowed. But fans of Kozelek’s steady and consistently stunning output over the years know that he unfailingly offers candid pieces of himself and his often acerbic worldview within his stirring songs, and that clearly is the case here on this new batch of mournful, melancholy numbers.
In addition to the penetrating, incisive lyrics that form the centerpiece of these austere tracks, Kozelek’s deft guitar work is also prominently centered in the mix, with Mark gracefully reshaping his playing style and tempo many times, often within the same song. Kozelek’s playing is warm and seductive throughout the record, playfully bouncing from a near-flamenco technique to a more stately waltz within minutes on these gorgeously expansive numbers. It’s hard at times to follow the lyrical threads that Kozelek weaves so expertly into these songs, simply because the tracks are hypnotic in both their simplicity and their delicacy. The listener is warmly transported to these shadowy worlds of Kozelek’s making; ones that the subjects have to either somehow find their way through or ultimately get lost within. It’s a comforting cocoon that Kozelek continually wraps his characters in, but one that also leads to a lonesome and wistful existence full of regret and longing.
The standouts on this elegant album are plentiful, beginning with the touching ode of ‘Ålesund,’ which flows smoothly into the acoustic bounce of ‘Half Moon Bay,’ which features Kozelek singing reflectively of the beauty of Highway 1 along the California coast. His stellar, sprightly fingerpicking on this track only serves to augment the tenderness communicated within the verses. All these songs are densely packed with emotion and extended codas, as if Kozelek is giving the listener time to fully process the story that just unfolded. And he predictably takes his time on these numbers, with the ten songs stretching the album out past the hour mark, while never once sounding inflated or plagued by unnecessary sentiment or melodies. Admiral Fell Promises is a carefully crafted snapshot of the parts of California, more specifically San Francisco, that Kozelek holds dear, capturing these vivid images of Chinatown on ‘Sam Wong Hotel,’ or downtown Seattle on ‘Third And Seneca,’ before he either forgets them or moves on to other muses.
‘You Are My Sun’ is an upbeat, nostalgic number, as the title alludes to, while the title track is a reworking of a song released by Kozelek on 2001′s White Christmas Live, with the newer version only half as long as the live rendition, and featuring some of the best guitar work of Kozelek’s storied career. ‘The Leaning Tree’ is simply a gorgeous track, with a buoyant cadence to the melody (which changes up three different times throughout the song) and Kozelek’s steady narrative uniting the number, which plays out as a suite rather than one singular movement. ‘Church Of The Pines’ and ‘Bay Of Skulls’ close out the record indelibly, with the plaintive depth of feeling and unadorned passion felt by Kozelek easily transferred to the listener through these stirring songs. As Kozelek eloquently states in ‘Church Of The Pines’: “And in my head, I’m playing with words. I scramble and I strain to find the right ones. Sometimes they’re alone, sometimes they don’t come.” Now having writers block, or any problem with productivity, is never something I’d accuse Mark Kozelek as suffering from, but he is careful with his calling and surely scrutinizes every word and chord that goes into his music. He puts in the hard work that good songwriting demands, and it clearly shows on Admiral Fell Promises, another in a long line of deeply affecting albums that Kozelek has graciously entrusted his listeners with.