COMMON AS LIGHT AND LOVE ARE RED VALLEYS OF BLOOD by Sun Kil Moon
Genre: Singer/Songwriter, Progressive Folk
Favorite Tracks: “God Bless Ohio,” “Butch Lullaby”
The most important thing that you need to know about Sun Kil Moon is that Mark Kozelek has a very legitimate claim to being the worst person in the music industry. I don’t say this lightly, and I don’t say it in the same way that I would complain about, say, Taylor Swift’s transparently self-absorbed snake-in-the-grass thing or John Mayer’s apparently repugnant attitude towards and treatment of the women in his life. I say it because Mark Kozelek himself just cannot and will not stop showing us that he is the worst person in the music industry, not only through his public actions and persona, but through his music. At the very least, most artists avoid the topics that leave them with foot-in-mouth syndrome in their work, but not Mark. He’s a living Twitter egg: a physical embodiment of the sort of would-be witty white men who asserted on social media that “Beyonce is not special for having twins.” More than anything he is something of an equivalent to a musical Bill Maher: a middle aged white man with an impossibly punchable face, who, like a broken, smarmy clock that is right twice a day, continues to draw something of an audience thanks to a small, glowing light of undeniable intelligence buried under a constantly growing layer of fecal matter.
Here are the greatest hits for those who weren’t aware: first, he tried to start the world’s whitest and most boring musical feud with The War On Drugs’s Adam Granduciel after he was upset that their set was bleeding into his after a festival placed them in adjacent venues; then, he decided to insult a paying audience in North Carolina and referred to them as “fucking hillbillies.” Finally, to top it all off, after an exchange with The Guardian reporter Laura Snapes that apparently did not go to Kozelek’s liking, he verbally harassed her on stage, tried to write it off as jokey “stage banter,” and then doubled down on the harassment. This, combined with a more general reputation for volatility and dickishness, make him a gratingly difficult person to spend two and a half hours listening to.
Normally, it wouldn’t be necessary or relevant to recant all of this information in an album review, especially in a world where all of it is one AskJeeves search away, but because of the way Kozelek writes, it’s completely relevant to know as many details about his life as possible in order to best judge the quality of his work. His experiments with songwriting form are that glowing light that keeps people attracted to his music. Formerly the frontman of seminal ‘90s slowcore act Red House Painters, as well as author of what some would consider to be some of the most sublimely beautiful songs of all time, Kozelek has spent the last few Sun Kil Moon albums working in a songwriting style that puts his own life under an intense microscope. The songs on this record, as well as 2014’s superb BENJI and 2015’s UNIVERSAL THEMES, are Herman Melville-esque, zooming in on the mundanities of Kozelek’s life that, when they coalesce, form a portrait of surprising proportions of the man that creates them. This isn’t to say that Kozelek is a particularly interesting subject, as he proves on COMMON AS LIGHT…, but he’s proven his best Sun Kil Moon songs are the ones that manage to paint broad strokes with a tiny brush.
On COMMON AS LIGHT…, Kozelek has gone all-in on his experiments with written narrative in his music, and the 16 songs on this 129-minute record almost all have some combination of a more traditional song structure and an extended spoken word section, reminiscent of someone reading from a journal. There isn’t really any musical diversity to be found either—most of the songs sound like a synthesis of Nirvana’s Unplugged and a low-lit, low-attended poetry slam at a coffee shop, with a touch of the classically-tinged guitar that Kozelek has spent the last several albums experimenting with. The result, when paired with Kozelek’s rambling and often spoken vocals, is a near-functioning form of low-key middle-aged hip hop. The musical aesthetics on COMMON AS LIGHT…would potentially be more listenable than any other Sun Kil Moon release if they were more diverse and imaginative, though the lack of variety is defensible by the fact that they play a clear supporting role to Kozelek’s writing. Narratively, this album follows Kozelek’s adventures to boxing matches in Las Vegas, a gig at Sarah Lawrence College, and Kozelek’s thoughts on many diverse subjects, including North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” (in which he generously pleads with the Carolina “rednecks” to “bury the axe with the transgenders”), Donald Trump, and the ills of social media.
There’s some good to be found here, when Kozelek’s writing stays relatively focused on one subject and when he avoids talking about the world. Album opener “God Bless Ohio” and “Butch Lullaby” are two songs that are on par with the exposed and honest creations on BENJI, and that’s largely because they are the only emotionally honest songs on the record. “God Bless Ohio” is an excellent reflection on Kozelek’s relationship with his home state of Ohio, and even if it’s a little longer than it needs to be, it was one of the only songs on this record that was not a laborious experience to listen to. It’s deceptively cool, it’s honest, and it doesn’t say anything outright offensive about anyone, and that’s all I want from Kozelek at this point. “Butch Lullaby” is a wholly unique creation, an ode to a deceased friend of Kozelek’s that feels like it could not have been dreamed up by anyone else. The song is essentially a written eulogy for Butch, an old roadie who had worked with Kozelek since the Red House Painters. It’s refreshing in its lack of forced sentimentality and benefits from Kozelek’s ability to pluck relevant details out of thin air in a narrative. Plus, it’s always nice to see the folks behind the scenes in the music industry in the spotlight, and as we get to know Butch, we get to know Mark a little better too.
Those highlights aside, COMMON AS LIGHT…is almost universally an incoherent mess. Before, the schtick worked, and Kozelek’s music felt like it was doing something truly progressive, despite its flaws. But what was once forward-thinking has fallen victim to Kozelek’s self-destructive impulses. Almost none of the songs on this record justify their length, and instead of the taut narratives we’ve come to expect from Kozelek, COMMON AS LIGHT… gives us a series of ramblings from an out of touch and bitter man who is aging without a shred of grace. Kozelek seems like a person who has gotten a taste of what it’s like to be a villain. Perhaps he enjoys the attention and it strokes his ego enough for him to decide that 10 minutes of talking about getting tacos is a better artistic choice than editing his word-vomit. It’s hard to imagine who Kozelek will appeal to with this record, but perhaps he only cares about appealing to himself at this point, which would not surprise anyone one bit.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend