The distinction between Mark Kozelek’s nominally solo output (see 2008’s The Finally LP) and his work as/with Sun Kil Moon (see 2008’s April), has always been tenuous: Whichever name Kozelek adopts for a given project, he can be counted on to deliver heartland melancholia via spartan folk and somber vocals. And with Admiral Fell Promises, he appears to have completely fused his two projects, affixing the Sun Kil Moon moniker to an album performed entirely solo, with no instrumentation beyond his nylon-string guitar. It’s a fitting setup for a man who approaches solitude as both medium and subject matter (“I’m just moaning at the clouds/Wanting to be known/While I pass the lonely hours”).
While an album of barebones arrangements follows logically from Kozelek’s previous output, the idea will hardly appeal to listeners who find the singer-songwriter’s preference for crawling tempos and stripped-down compositions wearying. Aside from their instrumental simplicity, the songs on Admiral Fell Promises evince a uniform disinterest in sudden mood shifts or redemptive finales. Like the black-and-white photograph that adorns its cover, the album is an exercise in evocative shading that embraces austerity as an aesthetic principle. The results are frequently stunning, and nothing testifies to Kozelek’s skill as much as the fact that some of the album’s most stirring performances are also it’s longest. Give him seven minutes of your attention, and Kozelek repays with “Third and Seneca,” a stop-starting rumination on the isolation of city life, and “The Leaning Tree,” which begins as the record’s brightest tune and ends as its most resigned.
The album’s ruminative dramas wouldn’t be half so arresting, though, if they weren’t complemented by some of the best guitar playing that Kozelek has put to record. The material here is far from flashy, but it’s not exactly minimalist either. Kozelek’s fingerpicked melodies are intricate and generous, and he’s more likely to play an arpeggiated flamenco chord than to indulge in the type of plaintive strumming that characterizes lesser exercises in campfire folk. That’s not to deny that the album contains moments where dullness or familiarity set it (it’s even less dynamic, to be sure, than either of Sun Kil Moon’s previous albums), but rather to underscore how surprisingly varied the performances turn out to be once their essential similarities are allowed for.
Judged as an expansion on Kozelek’s craft, Admiral Fell Promises is a slight effort; it offers intimate perspective, sure, but the object of observation remains the same. After two decades, Kozelek still sings mostly about himself and his losses, and he’s no stronger against nostalgia or heartbreak than he’s ever been. If the album continues a familiar story, though, it also affirms why that story was worth listening to in the first place. Kozelek’s vocals are always rich with empathy, and when he delivers his finer verses, his songs take on an expressive power that seems disproportionate to their highly particular content. On the funereal “Church of the Pines,” he wiles away time in bed with his guitar, hoping that his music might protect him from his old enemy, loneliness, and also a new one, old age. His old six-string probably doesn’t have that kind of power, but Admiral Fell Promises is proof that it does have some magic in it all the same.