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: “... I’m bringing it to a friend / And no I don’t sing / I’m only humming along”), it’s obvious that by placing that line right at the top of the disc, Kozelek is wryly trying to upset our expectations as to what a “voice and guitar” album from Sun Kil Moon is going to be. Although Kozelek had done such a format plenty of times before under his own name (both in the studio and with live recordings), Sun Kil Moon always was a bit more of a full-band affair, starting with the group’s brilliant debut album Ghosts of the Great Highway in 2003, which showed Kozelek loosening up his sound even moreso than he did on the last Red House Painters album, 2001’s downright optimistic Old Ramon. Although various Kozelek solo releases peppered the landscape from year to year, Sun Kil Moon’s next disc (2005’s Tiny Cities) took some by surprise, as it was an album filled with nothing but Modest Mouse covers, making 2008’s April the first new disc of Sun Kil Moon material in nearly five years. As excited as people were to hear what Sun Kil Moon had been working on for nearly five years, April proved to be the dark, melancholic flipside of Ghosts of the Great Highway‘s upbeat eclecticism, cold and meandering where Highway was textured and warm.
With that in mind, Admiral Fell Promises is an interesting beast. Some of these songs have been kicking around for a long time, the title track having received its live premiere all the way back in 2000 before finding its way onto one of Kozelek’s live discs the year following. Although it’s unclear why he felt the need to hold onto the song for a decade, it sounds like it was written around the exact same time as a majority of these new songs were. The finger-picking style, the lightly overlapped vocals, the sometimes-mumbled lyrics that may very well be much up to interpretation—it all adds up to an album that is unmistakably the creation of Mark Kozelek.
However, by stripping away all those additional bells and whistles from Sun Kil Moon’s sound, an unintentional side-effect is achieved: the whole thing turns out to be a bit too monochromatic. Although Kozelek’s discography is filled with voice-and-guitar albums, something is a bit lost in translation this time out. Look at Kozelek’s brilliant 2001 release What’s Next to the Moon for example, wherein he tackles the Bon Scott-era AC/DC songbook with relative ease, mixing dirty blues dirges with more refined pop-ready moments, covering ten tracks in only 30 minutes and leaving us breathlessly wanting more. On Admiral Fell Promises, however, it takes twice as long to get through the same number of tracks, and this time without the varied tempo changes that helped make What’s Next to the Moon such a vivid listening experience. Although Admiral starts out with a bang (“Alesund” is a shifting, beautifully mysterious opener), the rest of the disc follows too closely to the opener’s lead, rarely deviating from tempo or tone in the 54 minutes that follow. Although there’s nothing inherently wrong with this by itself, placing so many similarly-hued tracks together ultimately winds up deadening their impact on an emotional front.
What’s particularly frustrating about these muted tones is how they ultimately lull the listener away from some of the more fascinating, contradictory lyrics that Kozelek has penned in some time. While April was washed in some frighteningly deep lyrical themes, fondly-remembered love seems to very much be on the mind of the narrator of Admrial. Frequently, these lyrics are written in the past tense, and with Kozelek’s beautifully-detached vocal delivery, the sense of longing is almost immediately felt (like on “The Leaning Tree”, wherein he recalls “Sleepy poets, perfect dream / Passed our homes along the sea / This I were, this I will / Leave to join you in the hills”). Flippant one-liners (“I retire and you’re aspiring / You’re dream-chasin’, I’m only escapin’”, from “Third and Seneca”) mix with flashes of out-and-out optimism (“You are my love / Radiant and pretty”, from “You Are My Sun”), and although we ultimately walk away from Admiral not knowing if the narrator in question is actually happy or sad with his remembered passions, several interesting themes are introduced along the way to make us debate and ponder as to how to interpret the whole thing.
For example, note how in the title track, Kozelek mixes some (very) dark humor with lines wherein he seems to tell his loved one that in order for trust to be established, they themselves have to make the first move, all before immediately switching that convention on the second go-round:
“Come into my arms and let your worries die
Come out from the web of all your tangled lies
But be true to me and I’ll be true to you
Judge me for what I’ve done, but what I’ll do
[...] Come out from the burning fire, butterfly
Let me lock you in my room and keep you for awhile
You watch over me and I’ll watch over you
And if you go tomorrow, choke me ‘til I’m blue”
It’s an interesting dichotomy that he’s playing at, but, also, much more straightforward a message than what we’re used to with a Kozelek album. He’s stated in interviews before that he finds that people often get tripped up by the use of people’s names when interpreting his songs (like on the Ghosts of the Great Highway‘s key tracks “Glenn Tipton” and “Salvador Sanchez”), so it’s not too surprising that he decided to play this one close to the chest: landmarks and history take a backseat to some very direct, very personal lyrical messages.
It should e noted, however, that at certain times, Kozelek seems to be getting deliberately cryptic even in his performances. “The Leaning Tree” opens with “Scattered relics of your loves / Lying around your dusty ...”—and that’s it. Although the line that should complete the rhyme is obviously “bones”, and a faint sound his made, his voice almost intentionally drops out to a quiet mumble, forcing us to deduce our own interpretation as to what he’s saying. Strangely, he pulls this trick multiple times on this album, which is at times interesting, at times downright maddening. This strange performance choice—mixed with the dry textural palette of which he chose to work with—makes for a disc that is hard to pin down even after multiple listens.
Yet perhaps the best summation of the interesting, fascinating, and occasionally frustrating work that is Admiral Fell Promises is delivered by Kozelek himself during the opening number: “Up here in the air / I’m just mumbling at the clouds / Wanting to be known / While I pass along the hours”. Well mumbled indeed, Mark. Well mumbled indeed.