In Mark Kozelek’s post-Red House Painter days, as Sun Kil Moon, his vocals have deepened from an airy pining into a richer timbre. His voice (often assisted, yes, by layering or reverb) runs thick with melancholy, and over past records — like 2003’s Ghosts of the Great Highway and 2008’s April — the music has echoed the deep expanse of his singing. Guitars swirl and drone, while drums (if there are any) give these couldbanks just the faintest push forward.
Admiral Fell Promises, however, takes a different approach. In place of those thick layers of murky atmosphere, Kozelek features only his acoustic, nylon-stringed guitar to back his stretching vocals. Over the years, Kozelek has honed a distinct style of guitar playing, often sounding as technically intricate as he does melodic, so it seems a good idea to put his playing up front.
And when this spare mix works, it really works. After early success with the percussive yet pastoral rise and fall of the guitar on “Half Moon Bay,” the middle of the record features a three-song stretch that represents the best of this set has to offer. Straightforward finger-picking fills out the observational wandering of “Third and Seneca.” Here, Kozelek sees everything from “ferries float out in the Puget Sound,” to “scenesters with their beards and tennis shoes.” After that wide lens, though, he hones in on one woman for “You Are My Sun.” His voice lightens over his most threadbare playing on the record, and he shapes the name “Leona” beautifully on the song’s aching refrain. The title track follows these two as the album’s most contained track, but also one of the best. The vocal melody doesn’t wander like so many of these other songs, and neither his playing nor his vocal delivery are overdone. It’s a simple acoustic ballad, with all Kozelek’s talents showcased well because he’s not pressing.
Those tracks stand out because there’s another side to Admiral Fell Promises that isn’t working quite as well. Often Kozelek’s intricate guitar playing is overly formal and comes off as stiff and insular. The opening notes of “Alesund,” the plinking phrases of “The Learning Tree,” and some of the Spanish-influenced playing that come later in the record sound a little precious next to sturdier tracks. And when Kozelek gets lost aimlessly noodling, the guitar’s cold precision can’t line up with the blurry sound of his singing. It’s these moments, where the playing is too stately and the vocal melodies too wandering, that those layers of atmosphere, which invited us into past records, feel like they’re missing. Mark Kozelek is surely a distinct voice, and a dynamic guitar player, but there’s a difference between playing solo and playing to yourself. And he stumbles over that line just enough to hold this album back from greatness.