Mark Kozelek isn’t a cheerful guy. Going into any of his records – including those he did in the 90’s with San Francisco slowcore pioneers Red House Painters – this is our starting point. He is not a happy dude. Nonetheless, we still love Kozelek for various reasons. His misery clearly isn’t all for naught. It comes from a remarkably real place. He is that friend you like to have over for dinner every once in a while with the unwavering promise of a good, deep, grounding conversation to remind you that a) there are some interesting, thoughtful people out there, amidst the muck b) you are not as sad as you think c) some things never change, and that’s comforting. There are some other reasons, but we needn’t really mention the man’s impeccable songcraft, hauntingly beautiful voice, or technical proficiency. Those things are a given at this point.
With Admiral Fell Promises, the fourth record under Kozelek’s Korean boxer inspired Sun Kil Moon moniker, most of these accepted characteristics remain resilient. Sure, Kozelek is still the same depressive folkie he’s been the whole time, wispily singing away his woes hunched over an old guitar. But, even the most consistent things can change. Whereas past records saw the former Red House Painter backed by a full, weighty electric band- a Tranquil Horse, if you will – Kozelek spends the duration of his newest record with a nylon stringed classical guitar. That’s it.
Now I know what you’re thinking, “This could get boring.” And, I’m not going to lie to you. Even heart-wrenching beauty can get a tad monotonous. This coupled with Kozelek’s reputation for putting out long records; it certainly can lose traction in a few spots over the course of its hour run-time. Around the middle of “Australian Winter”, you’ll wonder how much longer you have with the guy. The answer is about another 15 minutes. But, for the most part, Admiral Fell Promises only further highlights the merits of the guy’s work. For one, it shows rather out rightly that he doesn’t need much besides his wooden baritone and a few strings to get his stunning poetry across. These songs are just as affecting as any of his band-backed others.
“No this is not my guitar/ I’m bringing it to a friend/And no I don’t sing/I’m only humming along/Up here in the air/I’m just moaning at the clouds/Wanting to be known/While I pass the lonely hours” the 43-year-old Ohioan sings after a slow-building, instrumental introduction of dark hammers, delicate pulls, and weightless strums on “Alesund”, the record’s first track. Right from the start, it sounds, both instrumentally and lyrically, like it could be Kozelek’s best song yet. It has enough momentum, thoughtful progression, and inviting texture for us to forget that this is just a man and his guitar, which is the entire reason why this record works. Sure, as the album progresses, there is definitely some double guitar tracking, acoustic bass (“You Are My Sun”), minor reverb and production aid, and the most faint of strings (“Third and Seneca”) to help fully realize the songs, but for the most part, this is a stripped down affair.
The record’s lyrical themes appear to deal with the same doleful issues as before. Lost love, regret, and fear of life’s responsibilities. The aforementioned “Alesund” sees Kozelek look back at a love affair centered on a “pretty line” from a song and an ashamed inability to perform an impromptu gig. “Admiral Fell Promises” begins as if it is Weezer’s “Butterfly” written by an old man. “Come out from the burning fire/ Butterfly/Let me lock you in my room and keep you/For a while/Could you be the answer to my/Every prayer?” he sings. Each song bursts with the strong imagery Kozelek always brings to the table: eyes like flames, humming of highways, and the like. It’s captivating stuff, to say the least.
The songs also display his musicianship with an almost microscopic scope. Since it’s just Kozelek playing and singing, we can scrutinize every pluck and each strum, but we’ll find little to complain about. On each track, his flamenco-tinged guitar dances and floats effortlessly around his deep coo. Think a darker Nick Drake with a hint of Latin flavor. He’ll switch effortlessly from deep dark swoon, to feathery prancing, an exhilarating thing for your ears to witness. Kozelek possesses one of the warmest voices in folk, and his bright, dreamlike acoustic stylings provide just the right balance of the light and dark to draw us in deeper and deeper, until trapped between the two. On each song, Kozelek’s paradoxically soulful mumble gets tangled in an elegant maze of staccato downstrokes, wispy arpeggios, perfectly timed flourishes, and dream-like fingerpicking. And the maze is always changing.
Admiral Fell Promises is as strong a record as any of his others, all of which sink in a few places regardless of how much is going on. It’s the nature of Kozelek’s time-consuming unravel that causes things to eventually get tiresome. He takes a while to get anything done, but always arrives at sheer beauty. Here it’s just easier to see how much of that beauty relies on the basics of Kozelek’s songwriting: a compellingly beautiful voice and immaculate guitar work. If you stick with him, you’ll realize that sometimes a long, philosophical mulling over is just what you need from a friend. A break from all of the muck.