Sun Kil Moon Sun Kil MoonAdmiral Fell Promises
One of the points for debate with “April”, Mark Kozelek’s last album under his Sun Kil Moon alias, was the somewhat disproportionate presence of those long-lasting guitar flirtations –derivative and tedious in some phases, according to the more critical– that were the sign of the more disagreeable side of Red House Painters. The singer-songwriter has always been fascinated by these repetitive, rather dense sequences of distorted guitar and matching rhythmic bass that spiral in contrast with the clearer, more melodic parts of his discourse. On many occasions his contribution made sense and was lucid, providing a tense, aggressive counterpoint to the more acoustic notes of the proposal, but it’s also true that, at many other times, one ended up pressing the fast forward button when endless solos were coming up. These were a chronic problems with, for example, “Songs for a Blue Guitar”, an album that shows the best and the worst of his modus operandi.
On “April”, he partly took up this duality again, and in certain passages of the album, the listener let out the occasional yawn. Since then, it is as if Kozelek has tired, or become bored, with the more traditional band format and has focused on activating his more solo, acoustic, austere side. All of his releases over the last two years him, except for the occasional EP, have been live recordings starring his acoustic guitar. Having returned to the bosom of Sun Kil Moon, which we thought until now was the referential protection that he used to get together with a band and approach his compositions from a wider, more instrumental point of view—his more Crazy Horse refuge, so to speak. This made it logical to imagine that this album would continue in the same line as its predecessor. That’s not the case: “Admiral Fell Promises” is the most Kozelek and least Sun Kil Moon album recorded by Sun Kil Moon since the project was founded.
To start with, there are some very significant changes that cause a shift: the album is entirely composed for and performed with a Spanish guitar. This detail affects not only the sound of the songs, soft, delicate, and lighter, but also their structure and development. We are surely looking at the American’s most technical, thoughtful, and (why not just say so) exhibitionist work, and this is reflected in the presence of numerous sequences playing with the six chords that have profound influence on the emotion of the compositions. It’s clear that Kozelek knows how to play very well, and at all times you can perceive the author’s insistence on making this clear to his fans. The problem is that this idea of placing everything in the hands of a single instrument affects the album so explicitly and directly that everything indicates that it will generate heated debates. It has its pros and cons.
As a problem, it is mainly the marked monotony and linear quality of the album that stand out. The uniformity of the sound of the Spanish guitar neutralises the ups and downs and changes in intensity that are more characteristic of his sound, making the album into a predictable, highly structured trip that requires twice as much attention, and greater involvement and participation from the listener. The singer has gone from flirting with the rock robustness of Neil Young to making his proposal as bare as possible, delivering us a streamlined classicist work. In this drastic change, something has been lost, and I wouldn’t know whether to call it forcefulness, epidermal impact, or the feeling of hearing well-rounded, identifiable songs—but the first impression is that something is missing. Paradoxically, and although it may sound contradictory, this may end up turning into one of the points in favour of the new expressive formula. “Admiral Fell Promises” needs to be listened to two, three, four, five times to win you over, but if you manage to enter into its world and appreciate it, you find one of the most sensitive albums the singer-songwriter has ever written.
“Admiral Fell Promises” leaves everything in the hands of the details, and the listener’s attention. The picking of the guitar accentuates the precision of the lyrics and the way that Kozelek sings. This is an album with a deliberate tempo and nocturnal emotion, better digested alone than in company, more occupied with the inner world of a musician and his life than in couple relationships, very cinematic in its evocative capacity. And of course, the impression that Kozelek’s followers have is that, beyond the experimental whim of changing instrumental registers, the album seeks to be a manifestation of expressive refinement in which the guitar and voice take on the same importance and relevance in the contents, swatting aside everything that hinders or diverts one’s attention. It does not surpass the unforgettable inspiration of “Ghosts of the Great Highway”, still Sun Kil Moon’s best recording, and it being so demanding of the listener will surely cause a division of opinions, but even with the wind against it, it will be hard for other indie singer-songwriters to compete with him.