There is something approaching perfection in Mark Kozelek’s voice. Cutting through the obvious effects (reverb, multi-tracking) there is something like crystalized sadness at the core of it. Kozelek transcends the hubris of the over-indulgent schlockiness of the perennial sad-sack singer-songwriter in a couple of important ways on his latest Sun Kil Moon vehicle Admiral Fell Promises. First, in all of his Red House Painters stuff and continuing onto the sophomore album of his new band (let’s face it, it is all Kozelek) he fills his somber meditations with names, places, and proper nouns by pinpointing his sadness to certain places, people, and events in reality and history. Red House Painters painted a picture of Kozelek as the lonely Kerouac-ian poet wasting away in new coffee shops that used to be needle galleries, playing strung out to yuppies in a gentrified nineties San Francisco. Ghosts of the Great Highway returned to his home state, drawing references from childhood and analogies from historical boxers who bloodied the mat for fame, but now only exist in obscure song titles. All of this brings us to 2010’s curiously titled Admiral Fell Promises. Like the RHP and SKM albums (as well a couple of self-titled cover LP’s and EP’s) before it, Admiral Fell Promises roots itself in places Kozelek has visited or resided. His aperture is at full-wide here, illuminating details both mundane and expansive. On “Third and Seneca” he utters “ferries in the puget sound” with “scenesters with beards and tennis shoes” in the same breath, somehow beautifully capturing Seattle in a single sentence. Song titles range from places like “Alesund” (Norway), “Half Moon Bay” (CA), and “Third and Seneca”.
The second aspect that lets Kozelek gets away with being pervasively depressing, but haphazardly beautiful, is his virtuoso guitarwork. This has been a divisive feature on Admiral. Opinions on the delicate-picked, nylon-stringed, post-Fahey noodling and flamenco flourishes range from tacked on, perfunctory guitar exercises to undeserved moments of real beauty by a musician not afraid of totally owning his instrument, and letting us know it. These little flashes of brilliance show up on every song in more or less obvious ways. They may feel clunky when Kozelek ramps them up for display purposes only, the intro to “Alesund” and the coda to “Bay of Skulls” critics point to as the worst offenders. I, however, can’t stop listening to them. They feel like undeserved treats that live and breathe, and flash luminescent and crazy-eyed under double full moon reflections. Kozelek succeds most admirably when he embeds these virtuoso flashes full-scale in the DNA of his songs. The gorgeous James Blackshaw-like drones on the title track “Admiral Fell Promises” don’t get any more gorgeous.
With an album that feels as sparse as an Australian winter, Kozelek doesn’t leave us without a few escapist moments of hope in just about every song. Without the full-band and full on jam-tendencies on Ghosts, we are forced to hang on any glimmer of salvation, these range from his vowel-heavy inflection of the name”Leeeee-oooona” on “You are my Sun” and the upbeat guitar picking on “Admiral Fell Promises”. For most of the album we swim alone, totally drowned by melancholy. Sometimes thats ok.