Sunday, February 9, 2014

30 For 30: Admiral Fell Promises by Sun Kil Moon

I turn 30 on February 18th. I want to celebrate this, and get myself back into writing, by spending a few weeks rambling about the 30 things that have meant the most to me over the years. These will be from music, movies, books, videogames, and maybe even art and other things for good measure. I feel like my life has been much more about the things I've experienced than it has the people I've known or the places I've traveled to, and these 30 things have helped to make my 30 years more than worth all the innumerable bad things. Expect heartfelt over-sharing and overly analytical explanations galore! In part 7, I try to use words to talk about an album that makes me feel things I find it difficult to put into words.
In the midst of preparing for this series I was going through a deeply introspective time, thinking about all the writing I've done over the years. I talked about my motivation for writing in greater detail in the entry on Post Office, but I didn't mention the final puzzle piece that clicked into place and got me to truly understand why I write. The day I wrote the Post Office piece, I happened to read a new interview with Mark Kozelek, the man behind Sun Kil Moon and formerly of the band Red House Painters. In the interview (located here) he says the following: “I make music to process—because I have to, not for praise or accolades or reactions.” Maybe this unstoppable driving force to create—to have to create—is obvious to other creative people, but I had never been able to figure out why I do the things I do until reading that. It was like someone cleared away my ego, the part of me that thought I wrote to express myself to other people or to get people to notice me. No, I write to express myself—period, end of sentence.

This wasn't the first time Mark Kozelek's words had inspired me in some way. Growing up in Ohio with melancholia as a constant companion as he did, I suppose I have a connection to him for those reasons alone. But it's his music and his lyrics that have continually spoken to me on many levels since I came across him. Longtime readers of Whiskey Pie may remember this review, which is a little rough around the edges but the spirit and enthusiasm of a fan shines through some of the clumsy writing. In some ways I don't think I'll ever have that same revelatory experience with a new album from Kozelek. It's the difference between discovering a favorite new artist and simply hearing a great new album by an artist you're already deeply familiar with.

Yet—and let this “yet” be a loud, resounding thing that dispels the four-out-of-five-star review I gave it upon its 2010 release—I don't think Admiral Fell Promises has been challenged by anything else Mark Kozelek has done or will do. If you're the sort of person who judges a work by considering the artist's intent and how well you feel they accomplished this, I don't think you could find a fault in Admiral Fell Promises even if it's not your kind of music. He set out to make an album with just a nylon-stringed guitar and his voice, and he did it in his trademark beautiful/sad way. It's an act of bravery and simplicity as stunning, in different ways, as Nick Drake's Pink Moon.

This music speaks to me in a way I think I could only approach with my own writing by doing another novel. And in that form it would take far more words and be far less effective (probably) at doing the same thing. There are lyrics on Admiral Fell Promises that hit like a memory that stops you dead in your tracks because the feeling is still so strong. There are other lyrics that haunt my thoughts and daydreams like people I once truly loved but will never see again. In a world of fast movement, of constant touring and travel, of people who come in and out of his life, Mark Kozelek is obsessed with cataloging people, passing feelings, and places, trying to hold onto them by making them part of his music. In 'Third And Seneca' he sings:

From my view at 32nd Street
Winter throws its snow down heavily
empty halls of friends who've come and gone
I'm awoken, rushed and dragged along

This cataloging of people, feelings, and places is also something I try to do with my writing, but he says it much better. I tend to get attached to certain places I've been, whether due to the memories I formed there or the people who were around, and to want to return to them, over and over, and have it all be the same. Since this is not really possible, I guess it's why I live so much of my life in books, records, movies, and the like. Their permanence is reassuring to me. So as much as I don't miss certain ex-girlfriends of mine, and the places we shared together, lyrics from the title track of the album still get to me by contextualizing the disintegration of a relationship inside memories of a thousand days shared together in a house while the writer, in the present, looks at a night sky that echoes the emotions:

A thousand days have passed in that house she and I were sharing
and I hate myself for it, but I've stopped caring
the Maryland sky tonight is black and blue and beautiful

Lest I just keep quoting lyrics from songs and giving myself chills in the process, I'll explain why this album means so much to me. It goes far beyond the fact that I love how it sounds and how it makes me feel. It goes beyond the way it's by turns beautiful and sad, and then both at the same time, and always—always—bittersweet. See, reading Kurt Vonnegut for the first time when I was fairly young felt like discovering my literary Grandpa. He was much older, like a Grandpa would be, but through literature he spoke to me on deep levels, teaching me about the world and about my place in it. To an extent, he helped me figure out who I was, and more crucially, why I was the way I was. I don't know that I have the kind of depression that requires medication, seeing as how a therapist I saw during college told me I didn't, despite my protests. But at least after reading Vonnegut when I was in junior high, I understood what the feelings I had every so often were all about, and how it meant I wasn't so much broken or damage as I was different.

Admiral Fell Promises, then, feels like my older self doing the same thing to my current self, helping me understand everything better. This older self is more mature and poetic than I am; it's seen and done more things. It's there to let me know that, while I will never be completely happy 100% of the time, I will learn the hard lesson that, while life is indeed bittersweet, the sweet wouldn't mean anything without the bitter.

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