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By my count, this fourth Sun Kil Moon record is the eighth album of original material from Mark Kozelek (spread among twice that many full-lengths), and if you need to hang a story on it: this would be the completely-and-utterly solo-acoustic-record (on the tonally limited nylon-string guitar, too). Before you say, 'So what?' or 'Is that all?', see just how many you can actually name, from the world of US indie, rather than specialist folk music or classical guitar. (That second Palace Brothers record? Surely, something by Songs:Ohia…? Nope. Even Jandek mostly records electric, or with friends, since the late-Seventies.) Unless you assume Mark Kozelek exists in splendid isolation from the commercial world, you might even think the use of nylon-stringed guitar is another hand tied behind the back to show-up the likes of José Gonzalez, with his fancy percussive effects and abrupt twangs; that, and the fact most songs here are twice as long as those on Veneer, and the whole album’s double the length of Pink Moon.
Okay, okay, so it’s an unusual feat to pull off – but what’s it about? Lyrically, Admiral Fell Promises is another set of exquisitely detailed portraits of places and people, bound by no compunction to invent a narrative or moral (which can easily kill the realism), but just to keep alive the time you shared, to honour the person, or the spirit of the place. As one of the finest lyricists in America, for the past two decades, Mark Kozelek has long ploughed this furrow without being tempted by undergraduate surrealism, country-blues archaism, or that weird mix of mythology and classicism they brew up in Canada. Those of you who know the recent Sun Kil Moon records might be hoping for a theme this time, but yet again he’s tied another (figural) hand behind his back (how many has he got?!) by moving on from the lives of working class heroes that made Ghosts of the Great Highway (2003) so stunning. The touchstones, then, are travelogues like ‘Lost Verses’ and ‘Like the River’, from April (2008); songs that might be expansive, but don’t quite qualify as epic (like Tonight the Sky) by steering away from the dynamic riffs that put you in mind of Neil Young’s longer work-outs.
So far, it’s been hard to describe the album except by negation, but perhaps that’s because most of the music we’re used to is so comparatively un-developed at the composition stage; here, the music’s intricate, to such an extent that it often provides an ambience rather than a driving rhythm (there’s certainly nothing approaching the simplicity of RHP-classics ‘Have You Forgotten?’ or ‘Summer Dress’). This is, in other words, a far more daring album than first impressions might suggest. In fact, it’s instructive to consider what this album represents, in 2010. Mark Kozelek’s always had a tendency to record a certain number of long, or difficult songs for each album that would severely test the average listener’s patience (assuming they got past the heart-rending, shorter songs), and still leave the well-disposed listener baffled by his intent. Some of those early RHP songs were epic dirges not far off Swans; others were gruelling deconstructions of Seventies MOR, erasing everything that might be considered 'catchy'; more recently, Kozelek’s taken to stretching out his prettier songs with technically impressive but basically decorative instrumental sections. The point is: he’s made it this far – kept his cult status and made a living – because he’s always offset his idiosyncrasies, and compulsion to make demanding music, with a pragmatism about how to be out of step with the times, and make sure it’s the right step. (Consider, for instance, the pair of albums that found the timeless songwriting at the core of Modest Mouse and AC/DC; consider also, the DIY model of Kozelek’s label, and how much it would have cost to make an album like this, making up for the fairly low ceiling on sales-figures.) You have to wonder, in other words, whether he's ahead of the curve rather than behind it. Ultimately, an interesting album within its constraints rather than a hands-down triumph, but there were a lot of constraints…