Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Review: Sun Kil Moon - Admiral Fell Promises

Mark Kozelek’s never been one for brevity. Even the first Red House Painters release, 1992’s Down Colorful Hill, ran over 43 minutes spread across only six tracks. Kozelek has made a career of long songs and lengthy albums, both as a solo artist and as the frontman for Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon. The previous SKM record, 2008’s April, clocked in at a sprawling 73:44. Yet in all these epics, Kozelek somehow manages to avoid the trap of the bloated, meandering “long album.”

Admiral Fell Promises, the latest from Sun Kil Moon, is no different. Its ten tracks run just over an hour, with more than half of the songs clocking over six minutes.

But Admiral Fell Promises does differ from prior Sun Kil Moon and Red House Painters releases in a few key ways. This is the first album by either band not to feature drummer Anthony Koutsos. In fact, this is the first release by either band to feature no musicians other than Kozelek. This is also the first entirely acoustic record, with the accompaniment provided solely by nylon string guitars.

While Kozelek’s signature voice, atmosphere, and lyrical themes carry over, the music has quite a different feel. Gone are all the crunchy or gritty numbers. Instead, there are many clean guitar flourishes that sound almost classical or even, at times, flamenco. Maybe it’s the nylon strings, or maybe he decided to explore the range of his abilities as a musician. Regardless, stripping the songs down to nothing but Kozelek’s voice and acoustic fingerpicking makes his lyrics all the more haunting.

Perhaps none of these songs is quite as haunting as “The Leaning Tree,” in which Kozelek is visited by an apparition who appears to him in a wintertime dream. He describes her as having the perfect poise of a “statuesque queen” with “ocean blue eyes that bear the depths of your loss.” Eventually, the apparition disappears, thrusting him into an isolation even dreams cannot relieve. He calls for her, saying, “I long for one more day with you in my life,” and begs her to forgive him “once and for all, for all of [his] lies.”

The haunting qualities of dreams and loneliness are deepened by the album’s imagery. For a record released in July, winter imagery tends to dominate, especially in tracks like “Half Moon Bay” and “Leaning Tree.” Throughout “The Leaning Tree,” Kozelek refers to “the cold icy stream,” snow coating the “pines in the Sierra wintertime,” and his “mountain home.” “Australian Winter” describes the season differently, but even here the deserts and oceans represent loneliness and dreams, which seem to be the dominant themes of the album.

Even when “Church of the Pines” announces spring with blossoming flowers, jumping squirrels, and humming birds, Kozelek sounds no less lonely. In fact, all of this life bursting forth from nature seems to deepen the longing for some sort of inner contentment. Here he describes being alone in a room, loosening the strings on a guitar, looking for a specific tone. “And if it don’t come,” he says, “then I’ll put it down.” Overall, this seems to be the concept of the album, the isolated musician attempting to find some escape from loneliness and dreams, but facing frustration and further isolation if he can’t get the notes right.

This record may not appeal to everyone, not even all fans of Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon. Those looking for the crunch of “Make Like Paper,” the hook of “Carry Me Ohio,” or the grandeur of “Tonight the Sky” will be disappointed. But those to whom intricate guitar work appeals should find plenty to love, as this album, more than any before it, showcases Kozelek’s musicianship. Combining this level of craft with haunting, chilling lyrics of loneliness and dreams makes Admiral, perhaps, the magnum opus in a long career of long albums.

Admiral Fell Promises is available now on CD from Caldo Verde Records, with the vinyl set to be released in August. Those who order the album from Caldo Verde will receive a limited edition EP called “I’ll Be There,” which includes covers of Stereolab, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, and The Jackson 5.

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