Although it’s credited to Sun Kil Moon, this album is entirely, quintessentially, purely Mark Kozelek. This guy was the driving creative force behind the Red House Painters, a band which helped define the “indie rock” genre during the nineties. Their sound has also been called “sadcore”, which is just a cringe worthy term in my opinion, but it’s nothing impossible to salvage with some wordplay. Kozelek admitted to writing music mostly when going through bad phases, while sad or distraught, in order to center himself and acquire some inner peace. So, at the very core, this music stems from sadness. But the way it manages to transcend that sadness, to express and gently exorcise it at the same time – that’s the key to enjoying his music as a cathartic experience. Red House Painters’ music had an edge to it, had a bit of bite, albeit not very often. Sun Kil Moon, which is his follow-up project, shows signs of age on his part, as if there’s no more room for angst, merely a touch of nostalgia and an endless, warm, peaceful sea of patience. And given that “Admiral Fell Promises” is basically just Kozelek playing his classical guitar, as if to himself, and crooning his everyday-poetry lyrics in a subdued, mesmerizing tone, I’d say this album is pretty much as close to the essence of his creative vector as we’re ever going to get as listeners.
There was always a strange quality about Kozelek’s voice – I’m never quite sure if it’s recorded just once and it has these rich overtones on its own or if he sings twice or more and superimposes the tracks. Today, for example, I get the impression he sang the vocals once for each audio channel. Tomorrow, this impression might fade again. In either case, he manages one of the most mesmerizing effects I’ve heard anyone do with a beautiful but not spectacular voice. And he’s been doing it since the Red House Painters days! When I say not spectacular, I mean it’s not in the same class as, say, Frank Sinatra. It has a grounded, vulnerable, human quality about it, as if there’s something ephemeral about it, as if it’s just about to dissipate. His voice soars prudently – reminding me of the plastic bag scene in American Beauty – with a sort of sincere pretentiousness, if such a thing is possible.
His voice is perfectly doubled and empowered by his absolutely staggering guitar work on this album. As a guitarist myself I can resonate with what he does here on a very personal level. The amount of control and of precision, the amount of inventiveness and the slow, gentle buildup of not so much sound but pure melody he brings to the table are reminiscent of no pop music influence I can discern. No, his playing here draws a direct line to the classical composers, the likes of Baden Powell and Isaac Albeniz and he plays his instrument with all the grace and tenderness of Segovia. A classically trained guitarist might tell me I can’t tell the difference between a guitar and my ass at this point, but in my mind, this kinship remains poignant – I don’t believe one can ignore it, at least not at an emotional level, even if technically there might be severe counterarguments to my impression.
As for the music itself… well, I can think of no better way to keep warm in November than a cup of tea and “Admiral Fell Promises”. This music is like an object you’ve been treasuring ever since you were a child. It’s like your favorite armchair, the book your grandmother used to read you stories from, the china cup inherited from so long ago you can’t even recall who exactly down your family tree acquired it in the first place… or simply the packaging of your last birthday gift, the one on which all your friends wrote and you’ll never ever throw away. The gentle ebb and flow of the rhythmic patterns mirror the ebb and flow of memory and make the passage of time seem like a friendly, welcome thing. In terms of synesthesia I get the feeling while I’m listening to this album that I’m in fact reading a book. There’s a tactile delight involved, like I’m touching the paper and feeling the weight of it, and there’s a tranquility which overcomes me, a particular brand of quiet which no other activity can give me besides reading. Kozelek has a very sensuous quality to his lyrics as well, which is as always well complemented by his melodies, so the lyrics have a way of projecting images into one’s mind, of dancing with your moods and inducing a deep, muffled stirring in one’s imagination and emotional balance.
I can think of no greater compliment for Mark Kozelek and his melancholy musings than drawing the short line between this album and Nick Drake’s “Pink moon”. I’ll get to that album some time in the future… how could I not? But until then, Admiral Fell Promises will do just fine.