Review Summary: Not quite another album for the fall season that we had hoped it would be
I believe that Mark Kozelek is a man born for the autumn season, so much so that I think his prior 2008 outing with Sun Kil Moon, April
, would have had much more success, critically and financially, if it had been released in the chilled oscillating temperature months of September through November, instead of in the spring. Somber, broken, and reminiscing – these are all adjectives to describe Kozelek’s vocal delivery, as well his niche in songwriting. His career has proven that with time he’s only gotten better, going from an innocent yet wisdom-beyond-his-years appeal in the 90s to a vocal delivery in the present day that’s tired and weary, as if having fully experienced all of the tales that he sang of well over a decade ago. The switch in the cohesion of his material between the final Red House Painters’ outing, 2001’s Old Ramon
, and Sun Kil Moon’s 2003 debut masterpiece, Ghosts of the Great Highway
, was the sound of a songwriter fully coming into his own, finally able to justify the five-plus-minute tracks that had so often brooded and burned out without direction under the Red House Painters moniker.
The premise to this year’s Admiral Fell Promises
is perhaps the answer to any adamant Kozelek fan’s prayer: the Ohio-born songwriter without any backup band and just his acoustic guitar songs, with each being wholly new and original. Initial listens are pleasing, seemingly revealing a collection of long-winded tracks, each averaging around seven minutes, which, knowing Kozelek and his past work, many would think would grow on them with repeated listens. His knowledge of scales is put on display here more so than any project he’s done in the past, as the songwriter chooses to use stark changes in chord direction to justify many of the track’s lengths, instead of relying on a strong melody or memorable vocal hook, as those heard in classic opener “Alesund” or pre-released album cut “Australian Winter”. This is certainly disappointing, as Kozelek more often than not sounds as if he’s trying to validate his skill as a guitar player, instead of giving us what we’ve always come to him for with each album: tear-jerkers of songs that make our pasts so much harder to bear, yet we always return for more.
Not every track seemingly chases scales without purpose, though. “You Are My Sun” is perhaps the most heart-wrenching ballad that Kozelek has written since Ghosts of the Great Highway
’s “Duk Koo Kim,” sending chills up your spine once the songwriter surprisingly changes chords near the end of the track and stretches the symbols of the name “Leona” whilst singing a heartfelt melody. The title cut is a rather strong song as well for a flurry of guitar plucks that come with a staple reminiscing Kozelek chorus: “A thousand days have passed in this house she and I have shared / And I hate myself for it / But I stopped caring
.” However, by Sun Kil Moon and Red House Painters’ standards, many of Admiral Fell Promises
’s highlights are subpar; you won’t find anything as anthemic as the final distorted chord sequence of April
’s epic “Lost Verses” or any moment as emotionally aching as the resonating piano chords to the second version of “Mistress” on Red House Painters’ classic album, Rollercoaster
. Guitar playing aside, Kozelek’s songwriting sounds largely uninspired without many notable highlights this time out; which, as any fan would agree, is highly unusual for any of the songwriter’s work and, as a result, is very disappointing.
When held up against prior Sun Kil Moon efforts, Ghosts of the Great Highway
, Admiral Fell Promises
can’t help but come across as a disappointment. The premise for the album is a dream come true for fans in many aspects, but unfortunately Kozelek just isn’t able to give us a great collection of songs. It's clear here that his skill as a guitar player has gotten better over the years, but unlike the finer balance of guitar playing with excellent songwriting to be found on 2003’s Ghosts of the Great Highway
, too much emphasis is placed here on his knowledge of the fretboard instead of stronger melodies. It’s the closest that the songwriter has come to guitar wankery, in a sense, and though his playing does help diversify the longer tracks of the album, it almost seems like it’s just a compensation for his inability to write stronger melodies or to pen very many memorable lines this time out. It’s too close to being an average album than any fan of Kozelek would like, and though I still have faith in the songwriter for his next outing, I think Admiral Fell Promises
is a pretty strong indicator that Kozelek needs a backup band, and preferably an autumn release date, to help him get back on the somber, broken, and reminiscing track of quality that he's always been known for.