Sun Kil Moon: “Admiral Fell Promises”

I was looking through an old Red House Painters file a while back, and came across a review of their debut album in which Allan compared Mark Kozelek’s songwriting to that of Dino Valente.

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I was looking through an old Red House Painters file a while back, and came across a review of their debut album in which Allan compared Mark Kozelek’s songwriting to that of Dino Valente.

I remembered this earlier today, listening to the new Sun Kil Moon album as I walked to work, thinking about how Kozelek has become one of those artists who seems to reference themselves far more than any other artists. The capricious, undefined shape of Valente’s solo songs remains a decent comparison, and the electric jams on “Ghosts Of The Great Highway” and “April” certainly trudged in the wake of Crazy Horse, to greater and lesser degrees.

But “Admiral Fell Promises” has none of that protean thud, and seems located more than ever in Kozelek’s distinct soundworld. This time, his fourth album as Sun Kil Moon is a solo and acoustic affair, though not one that sounds quite like the solo, acoustic and often live sets that Kozelek has put out under his own given name.

For a start, Kozelek often discreetly multitracks his vocals. More importantly, he plays nylon string Spanish classical guitar throughout. It seems like a mere technical point, but the difference is striking: Kozelek’s songs have historically unravelled in a way in which, personally speaking, actual instrumentation is barely noticeable. Consequently, when the album begins with “Alesund”, it begins not with the reliably reflective Kozelek embarking on one more lengthy emotional exploration, but with a meticulous guitar flourish.

The heroic consistency of his songwriting is unaltered, but the shape of the songs has subtly shifted; there are passages of courtly virtuosity that punctuate the inexorable flow of things. As usual, though, the effect is cumulative. I’ve been living with this album for a good while now, loving many of the songs, but missing the drawn-out electric firestorms that provided variety on those first and third Sun Kil Moon albums.

Now, as the songs really start to bed in, the tight unity of “Admiral Fell Promises” feels logical and satisfying. I’ve written before, I think, about the compelling impact of Kozelek’s music over what is now nearly 20 years: its measured, insidious power; its unwavering consistency; its role in my life and on my iPod as a calm, meditative failsafe. “Admiral Fell Promises” doesn’t disappoint.

I always suspect Kozelek gathers a bunch of salient songs together rather than writes a new batch when he puts together a new record, and certainly, the title track at the very least has been popping up in his setlists for about a decade. I find it very hard to explain precisely why one Kozelek song is preferable to another – some mystical alignment of progressions and poignancy, maybe – but the standouts currently feel like “Half Moon Bay” and “Third And Seneca”.

The latter, especially, is tremendous, possibly in the same melodic vein as “Unlit Hallway”, one of my favourites from “April”. Some of these songs seem to be predicated on life as a musician (“Church Of The Pines” touches, I think, on the act of writing a song). But while, in the hands of some other musicians, such pensées can come across as self-indulgences, sometimes even whinges, Kozelek handles the territory with subtlety and grace.

“Third And Seneca” seems to be a kind of impressionistic travelogue, meandering around the bays and hotel rooms of North America, looking out over Puget Sound, leaving Hollywood, thinking always of San Francisco. It’s a measure of Kozelek’s vivid and persuasive art, perhaps, that he always ends up making me nostalgic for that last city; as if a place I’ve visited a few times is as significant to me as a hometown.


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