While mark's guitar gently weeps
Have Sun Kil Moon just made their Pink Moon? This is one of the questions being debated by fans as they post their reactions to Admiral Fell Promises, the new album by Mark Kozelek, on this outing the one and only member of Sun Kil Moon.
The comparisons with Nick Drake's mythic swansong may seem fanciful to unbelievers but they make a lot of sense if you've been following the bends and curves of Kozelek's 20-year career closely.
Having decorated his sublime, mysterious narratives with lush, pastoral string settings and later ornate, extroverted jazz arrangements, Drake ditched the collaborators and stripped everything down to the bone (just acoustic guitar and vocals) when he recorded, in two separate midnight sessions in 1971, what turned out to be his bittersweet parting glass.
Now, almost 40 years after Pink Moon, Mark Kozelek has attained a similar level of intimacy and intensity in his songwriting -- and has done so by leaving the bass, drums and electric guitars in the cupboard and giving his bandmates a holiday.
In their place, the 43-year-old San Francisco-based singer has switched his focus to an old 1960s Silvertone nylon-stringed classical guitar he bought for $60 in an antique shop.
The result is an album whose intricate, highly nuanced flamenco soundscapes have taken long-term followers by surprise. Kozelek has always alternated between folky acoustic guitar picking and amps-to-11, electric grunge-a-thons straight out of Crazy Horse's songbook.
But this time around, Kozelek's guitar playing is more reminiscent of John Williams's 'Cavatina' than 'Like A Hurricane'.
In fact, the virtuoso musicianship throughout Admiral Fell Promises is quite breathtaking, suggesting that Kozelek has put in serious time since 2008's April album perfecting his classical technique.
He showed glimpses of it when he last played Dublin -- at a gig in the Andrew's Lane Theatre last summer -- when he unveiled a couple of the new songs in all their Spanish-inflected glory.
In a rare interview on his own record company website -- these days he prefers to do most of his press and promotion by email -- Kozelek explains the inspiration for this noticeable shift in musical direction, and, surprisingly, cites de Valera as a key influence. . .
"I bought some classical records -- by Liona Boyd, Ana Vidovic, Julian Bream. But I really fell in love with this record by Segovia. It's just called Segovia, composed by Tansman, Federico Mompou, and Maria Esteban de Valera.
"It was then I decided, for my next record, that I wanted to play guitar and sing as beautifully as I could. With the classical guitar, the whole range of sounds is covered. Bass and drums would have swamped up the sound of this record."
So it's unlikely that the new record will inspire any dancing at the crossroads, but it does concern the comings and goings of any number of comely maidens. On 'You Are My Sun' he repeats his lover's name as if mesmerised by the cadence of the word itself.
Once again, Kozelek's song titles are heavy on specific place names: 'Sam Wong Hotel', (located in San Francisco's Chinatown); 'Third And Seneca' (a street corner in Seattle); 'Half Moon Bay' (a coastal town in California); 'Alesund' (a town in Norway).
But if Kozelek's songbook represents a musical travelogue of sorts -- the ultimate trucker's atlas -- it's more the buried emotions and vivid memories associated with these places that he is concerned with excavating.
A walk down a beach by the ocean or through the streets of his hometown can trigger remembrances of flings past or of a loved one who's passed on.
Regrets? He's had a few -- the longing and the ache described in 'The Leaning Tree', where he yearns, impossibly, for "one more day" with a departed lover, is so visceral it's almost unbearable to listen to.
It seems that Kozelek is maturing with each album. Self-absorption has gradually been replaced by self-awareness.
"I'm 43 now and have seen people pass away from natural causes that aren't much older than me, and some even younger than me," he says on his website.
"It's a reality check. I try to take advantage of the day more -- to do things that make me feel good, spend time with people I care about. I get up, do the email and phone stuff, go to the post office, run errands, and then walk four or five miles.
"No matter what I have to do, I find time to walk and enjoy my surroundings. I just try not to take my time for granted."
Whatever the colour, let's hope Sun Kil Moon keeps on shining.
Admiral Fell Promises is out now