Monday, July 26, 2010

Sun Kil Moon- Admiral Fell Promises

Mark Kozelek is an artist who's output seems increasingly insular. Even as he may record reverential covers of other bands or surface from time to time with a fantastic studio album under the Sun Kil Moon moniker, in between he'll put out interchangeable live albums from his solo acoustic tours, printed in limited runs of CD and vinyl to cater to hardcore fans, collector/eBay seller types, or both. As he runs his own record label, Caldo Verde, it's easy to question his motivations: what better way to make money than to do cheap solo acoustic tours and gouge your audience for documents of said tours? Well, maybe I'm naïve, but I don't think Kozelek is that kind of guy. And even if he is, hey, we all need to make a living somehow.

But I was saying something about him being an insular artist, wasn't I? Ah yes. Admiral Fell Promises is his new studio album as Sun Kil Moon, and it is almost stubbornly removed from its era. I say “almost” because I don't think he's even aware of how strikingly bizarre it is to hear a solo acoustic album from a modern artist when the typical listener is ensconced in any number of maximalist music genres, made with all sorts of instruments, samples, loops, effects pedals, and various gew gaws. It's the opposite of Bob Dylan going electric, of Lou Reed releasing Metal Music Machine. It's an artist in 2010 saying, damn it, you are going to sit down and pay attention to my impressionistic, cinematic lyrics, my moody nocturnal voice, and most importantly, my intricate filigrees and plucks on this here nylon stringed guitar. You may prefer “introverted” or “solipsistic” to “insular”, but no one said all art had to be outward looking and cutting edge.

Admiral Fell Promises sounds and feels like a mix of the acoustic guitar epics of Roy Harper's Stormcock, the minimalist grace and melancholia of Nick Drake's Pink Moon, and Pat Metheny's acoustic and baritone guitar album, One Quiet Night. It also reminds me a lot of the acoustic based songs from the last Sun Kil Moon album, April. If that sounds like an obvious point of comparison, understand I mean it more in the sense of the imagery and atmosphere of the lyrics than the music. There's a dreamy, cinematic, often bittersweet romanticism to April that still stuns me. Kozelek has such a way with words in regards to memories of people and places, such that it has the power to make you feel nostalgic for things you haven't experienced, possibly things that no one has. This gift is still going strong here. A travelogue like 'Third And Seneca' perfectly encapsulates this, with juxtapositional wordplay like “blood orange L.A./blood red Arizona.”

With the addition of masterfully played acoustic guitar, these songs are transformed from rambling solo pieces during which the same chords are monotonously played over and over, to something artful and rewarding to spend time with. The intros, outros, fills, bridges, and “solos” of Admiral Fell Promises are easily among Kozelek's richest playing yet, never calling attention to themselves as artificial additions. Instead they are built into tracks as intrinsic things, like the change at 4:35 of 'The Leaning Tree' or the sudden flurry of activity around 2:46 of 'Australian Winter' that comes and goes like a nasty snow squall. Kozelek has never been a slouch when it comes to guitar. Songs For A Blue Guitar is really the place where he came into his own as an electric guitarist, but the track 'Si Paloma' from 2003's Ghosts Of The Great Highway demonstrated a keen ability for fancy acoustic fretwork, with its exotic Spanish character. Though his solo live albums may have also hinted at it, too, his acoustic prowess is the most astonishing thing about Admiral Fell Promises. In a lesser artist's hands, the guitar playing would be too showy and overwhelm the lyrics, or it would be too sparse to serve its dual role as both rhythmic and melodic backing. Yet every song on Admiral is expertly balanced between the two extremes. In fact, this is the sort of album you can put on at a fancy dinner party for background ambience OR use as a soothing companion when you're too depressed to get off the couch for most of the weekend, and it works equally well.

Though it's hard for me not to want another April with both Kozelek's solo acoustic side and his full band electric guitar stuff, it's also hard for me to deny the ethereal grace and depth of an album like Admiral Fell Promises. Yes, as a mood piece, it is sublime. But there is the problem with a release like this: much as I might enjoy it, its style and tone are too sustained and specific to make for a fully great album. You know, like, uhm, April was. Hmmmm...

4 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

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