An affinity for letting loose and rocking out isn’t necessarily the first quality one might associate with Mark Kozelek’s music, but a fair amount of the Bay Area singer-songwriter’s work since 1996 has been marked by frequent employment of ragged, distorted guitars. Songs for a Blue Guitar was the first Red House Painters album that found Kozelek turning away from his earlier, dreamy slowcore compositions toward alternately lilting folk and raucous barn burners, a duality that has made his full-length efforts with Sun Kil Moon some of the most compelling albums of the past ten years. But Sun Kil Moon’s third album of original material, Admiral Fell Promises, finds Kozelek putting aside the distortion pedals and the Marshall stacks in favor of a more stark and stripped down set that’s as gorgeous as anything in Kozelek’s 20 year discography.
By opening the album with the line “No this is not my guitar, I’m bringing it to a friend,” Kozelek invites the listener into an intimate space, offering candlelit serenades as haunting and beautiful as the black and white photo adorning the front cover. The song from which that line is pulled, “Alesund” begins the album with a series of gentle flamenco-inflected sweeps and plucks, slowly galloping toward an elegant waltz that starts the album off with a mesmerizing grace. And on “Half Moon Bay,” there’s a dreamlike quality to Kozelek’s naming of places and memories, from the titular bay to the humming highway, which achieves an interesting sort of onomatopoeic effect as his rich baritone creates its own hypnotic hum.
“Half Moon Bay” isn’t alone in being a musical document of events, as it were, as the album is littered with place names — “Sam Wong Hotel,” “Third And Seneca,” “Bay of Skulls” — most of which evoke landmarks in Kozelek’s native San Francisco. And as he sings lines such as “Catherine drifts again into my mind,” that intimacy becomes even more pronounced, Kozelek inviting the listener deep into the recesses of his memories, which are triggered by these specific points on a map. But Kozelek’s lyrics are so vivid and his storytelling uninhibited by extra layers of sound that one is easily held captive along the roads and corridors where his stories take us.
It would be dishonest to call Admiral Fell Promises a shock after April, considering Mark Kozelek has long been releasing music stripped bare to his lone, acoustic guitar. The surprising part is that it bears the Sun Kil Moon name, without the Crazy Horse-style rock `n’ roll that comes with it. This is, however, less a complaint than a pleasant surprise. A song like “The Light” or “Tonight the Sky,” no matter how kickass, would be out of place on an album this delicate. And when a performer is capable of creating songs of this caliber with as few instruments as possible, it’s a good sign that he knows what he’s doing.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.