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Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek Keeping Promises

Mike waxes lyrical on his "favorite" recording artist, Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon and Red House Painters


Mark Kozelek, painting blue guitar

I’ve written at length in this space about Mark Kozelek: the artist who currently records under the handle Sun Kil Moon, and before that, Red House Painters, and sometimes, in between noms de plume, under his own name. My reason for covering him with such frequency and verve is because, as I have noted, he is my “favorite” recording artist (whatever that means), and has been for some 16 or 17 years, and that relationship—artist and fan, spanning the course of what feels like forever—is one that I cherish, one that I think about a lot. Also, over the course of those years, Kozelek has grown, equally weirder and better and more confident; he’s gotten more interesting as he’s gotten older, he’s continued to write and record some stunning, beautiful music, music that continues to deserve and demand my respect and admiration and love.


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Kozelek’s new album, again released as Sun Kil Moon, is called Admiral Fell Promises. It came out a couple weeks ago on Caldo Verde, Kozelek’s own label, through which he releases his records as well as the records of a few other spiritually and aesthetically like-minded souls—that is to say, artists who create work of unusual sadness, slowness, majesty and beauty, artists such as Jesu, Kath Bloom and Retribution Gospel Choir.

Admiral Fell Promises is the third full-length studio album of original music released by Sun Kil Moon. There are subtle but important distinctions in that sentence: Sun Kil Moon has been a running project since 2003; Kozelek has been releasing music since 1992; his catalog includes some 27 recordings under his three separate monikers—including LPs, EPs, live albums, covers albums. His early work—the first albums from Red House Painters—shared tonal qualities with some of the more depressive shoegaze and dream-pop acts of the day (Slowdive, Catherine Wheel, anything on the 4AD label—which was also, not coincidentally, the home of Red House Painters back then), but it was better constructed than anything produced by those artists, with tremendous instrumental intricacies and confessional, poetic lyrics. (As Jim Greer of Spin Magazine said in 1993, Red House Painters “sounds like what My Bloody Valentine might sound like if the band could sing or write songs.”) Over time, Kozelek’s songwriting moved away from those echo-heavy, gauzy shades, into free-form Neil Young-ian guitar heroics and melancholic pastoral folk, à la Nick Drake or Tim Buckley, still keeping a tight focus on Kozelek’s mournful, dulcet voice and very personal, location-specific lyrics—that location frequently being Kozelek’s adopted home of San Francisco.

At this point in his career, it’s not so easy to compare Kozelek to anyone else—Admiral Fell Promises was performed solo, on acoustic nylon-string guitar; it is heavily influenced by Spanish classical guitar music. Kozelek’s own playing occasionally recalls that of Steve Howe of Yes. He’s become something of a virtuoso on the instrument. I saw him perform to a full house in Williamsburg a few weeks ago, and at times, from the back of the room, where I was standing, I felt like I was watching some old Catalan master playing to a hushed concert hall. And the hall was indeed hushed—entirely silent, hypnotized, reverent, as Kozelek played, seated, bathed in a cool light, alone on stage. That is fairly standard for Kozelek’s shows these days, and has been for more than half a decade now. His music demands obsession, careful attention. He hasn’t toured with a band since 2003, hasn’t played an electric guitar on stage (that I know of) since 2001. Speaking selfishly—with no concern for Kozelek’s own touring considerations—I think he should plug in now and then; he should occasionally drag the band on stage with him: His electric guitar work is powerful and exhilarating, and many of his best songs were originally recorded with a full band arrangement.

If anything, though, Admiral Fell Promises suggests he will not head in that direction anytime soon. The new album is stark and delicate, like the reflection of moonlight on a gently rippling lake; like a cigar box full of old letters, folded and faded, full of faraway love and endless loss. It has tremendous depths, and darkness, and tenderness. Its beauty can be astonishing, transcendent, but it is also reassuring. Few other artists are capable of such work. Indeed, I cannot think of one. And if this is because I am a fan, so be it—but I am a fan because the artist has earned my devotion, and continues to earn it. And I listen to a lot of music—really, a lot of music—but nothing else captures me like this. Nothing else even comes close.

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