As Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek has grown older, he’s grown less obsessed with the details of personal relationships and more obsessed with the effects of time. Though somberness and length are ties that bind all of his work together, recounting his entire back story with Red House Painters here again seems a little misguided. That was great material indeed, but always mentioning it somewhat diminishes Kozelek’s achievements both as a solo artist and in Sun Kil Moon (for all intents and purposes the same thing with a different name), as if people wouldn’t still be listening if it weren’t for his past. The Sun Kil Moon songs are much preferred to some listeners, and quite frankly the RHP days don’t matter much anymore because he’s moved on and so should everybody else.
Admiral Fell Promises finds Kozelek changing still, going solo acoustic and playing mostly in a picky, classical guitar style on nylon strings. The presentation is bare and beautiful, and the continuity in sound over the ten tracks makes the whole affair deeply meditative. Impressively, his chops on the classical compare favorably with well-known classical guitarists (“You Are My Sun” even has a lyrical coda which beseeches the great Liona Boyd). His classical playing style has a measured, deliberate feel, with plenty of repetition and an occasional Spanish flair. These lengthy compositions are fleshed out with intros, outros, and right turns where Kozelek shifts from troubadour to straight classical guitar soloist. These flights of fancy are a shift of the prism, and keep the songs alive and the album nimble.
Lyrically, Kozelek compliments the spare arrangements with personal reflections and observations from the loner eyes of an aging soul. The past and future are only interesting in how they inform the context of the current moment. Locations accord with moods and feelings, and provide the bases from which he watches the world. Even as he passes through a wide breadth of locations, his point of view holds steady, allowing the listener to embody his reflective perspective. Natural elements are respected for their purity and permanence while “the words we share dissolve as they’re spoken.” Depsite some of the bleakness, Kozelek sounds more at peace here than ever before.
Like many recordings, when just left in the background or listened to while multitasking, Admiral Fell Promises could be said to pass by pleasantly and agreeably, melodoious but unchallenging. Pay it your attention, though, and Kozelek’s work highlights the strange way we live our lives and interact with the world. The music itself actively challenges current conventions of pacing and attention, not just with song lengths but also with the consistently spare arrangements, almost like it commands your attention by not begging for it. Kozelek has become a master of conveying the impressionistic nature of memory and the slow fatality of existence, the world passing him by while he struggles to process his internal slideshow and understand the meaning of moments. He slows everything down for deep inspection instead accelerating and defocusing to accommodate the demands of hyper-wired culture and distributed attention. With randomizing iPods, omnipresent earbuds, car stereos equipped with satellite radio, babbling computer speakers, and cameras installed in everything, we are urged by our environment which is filled with peripheral appliances and memory keepers to diffuse our concentration, collect data, grow and market our personal identities, and ignore our emotions. Sitting down and listening to a full length album all the way through without outside interference is nearly impossible, let alone desirable. However, the solitary atmosphere and minimal elements of Admiral Fell Promises make it designed for just such a commitment, and suggests a near future when the only way left to really listen to music is by playing it yourself.